May 5, 2023 - Sports

Deaths cast shadow over Derby

horse on track at churchill downs

Churchill Downs. Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Five horses have died at Churchill Downs in the past week, mere days before the historic racetrack hosts the Kentucky Derby.

Why it matters: The deaths are a tragic reminder that even amid horse racing's recent and long-overdue reform, major issues remain regarding animal welfare.

Driving the news: Churchill Downs suspended trainer Saffie Joseph on Thursday after two of his horses — Chasing Artie and Parents Pride — collapsed and later died after races at the venue's spring meet earlier in the week. The venue also scratched Derby entrant Lord Miles, another horse saddled by Joseph.

  • Derby entrant Wild on Ice was euthanized after suffering a catastrophic injury following a workout last Thursday, Take Charge Briana was euthanized after suffering a similar injury in a race on Tuesday and Code of Kings was euthanized after breaking his neck in a saddling paddock on Saturday.
  • These deaths come just weeks after three other horses were euthanized following injuries at Keeneland's spring meet in nearby Lexington.

Between the lines: The cause of death for Joseph's horses remains unknown. But in this sport, there's always the question of whether doping played a role — particularly when Joseph received a 15-day suspension earlier this year for a positive drug test.

What they're saying: "It shatters me," Joseph told SI earlier this week. "The odds of that happening twice, it doesn't add up. Theories aren't going to help anything. We need facts."

  • Before his suspension, Joseph scratched seven horses who were stabled alongside Chasing Artie and Parents Pride, "[in case] there is something going on over there like contamination."
  • Churchill Downs vowed to "continue to press for answers" and said it was working with regulators to conduct investigations.

State of play: After years of widespread doping scandals and scores of mystifying deaths, Congress formed the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) in 2020 to bring regulation to the sport.

The bottom line: The start of Triple Crown season should be cause for celebration. Instead, a rash of sudden deaths has led — yet again — to a referendum on the sport of kings.

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