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Equine Deaths Mar Lead-Up to Kentucky Derby

The lead-up to the 149th Kentucky Derby (G1) at Churchill Downs May 6 was marred by seven equine deaths since April 27 including two 3-year-olds on Derby Day.

Chloe’s Dream , who ran in the second race May 6, and Freezing Point , who contested the Pat Day Mile (G2), were both euthanized following on-track injuries. 

Rocket Ship Racing’s Chloe’s Dream, a gelded son of Honor Code  , sustained a significant right front knee fracture during the maiden special weight race and was eased by jockey Corey Lanerie before being vanned off. She was trained by Jeff Hiles.

Randy Jill Gootzeit’s Freezing Point, a son of Frosted  , suffered a left front biaxial sesimoid fracture and was pulled up midway down the backstretch by Lanerie and was transported via horse ambulance to Churchill Downs’ equine medical center for evaluation and was euthanized later. The colt was trained by Joe Lejzerowicz.

Churchill Downs equine medical director Dr. William Farmer declined to comment, deferring to a forthcoming track statement.

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“Churchill Downs is unwavering in our commitment to the health and well-being of equine safety. The equine fatalities leading to this year’s Kentucky Derby are a sobering reminder of the urgent need to mobilize our industry in order to explore every avenue possible and effectively minimize any avoidable risk in the sport,” read a statement from Churchill Downs Inc. “Despite our determination to continually improve upon the highest industry standards, there is more to be done and we will rigorously work to understand what caused these incidents and build upon our existing data, programs and practices to better understand what has been incredibly difficult for us to witness and accept this week.”

CDI added that each incident reported has been unique and no discernable pattern has been detected.

“Our track surfaces are closely monitored by industry experts to ensure their integrity. Each horse that participates in racing at Churchill Downs must undergo multiple, comprehensive veterinarian exams and observations to ensure their fitness to race,” the company stated.

“From here, we will fully and actively work with the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority to thoroughly investigate each incident to determine, to the degree possible, any underlying health or environmental causes and apply those learnings to continue to improve the safety of this sport,” it continued. “Together, we all want what is best for the horses.”

Dr. Alan Ruggles, the on-call spokesperson for the American Association of Equine Practitioners and a partner at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, offered a similar view on the fatalities prior to CDI issuing its statement.

“There’s no one around here who wants to see a single injury. You have to be able to separate what happened. Two of the horses that died (their injuries) didn’t appear to be musculoskeletal related,” Ruggles said, referring to the seven overall fatalities. “You have to look at them in a different lens. It’s not still important, but you can’t necessarily put them in the same grouping if you are going to do analysis.”

He said numerous factors can be in play when tragedy happens. Speculation runs rampant whenever there is a rash of injuries and/or deaths at a track. Fingers are often pointed at the track surface, but Ruggles said there is a standardization that allows tracks to view in real-time if conditions have changed. Churchill Downs has a black box that contains data of the track from which they can compare conditions from the last time they checked. 

“It’s important news, it’s just hard to say what to do today,” Ruggles said of the tragedies.

HISA said in a statement that Churchills Downs has been cooperating with HISA since its inception and is in full compliance with its rules and processes.

“On the morning of each race, every horse undergoes a hands-on inspection and is observed in motion outside their stall. A team of Kentucky Horse Racing Commission regulatory veterinarians also views each horse in the paddock, during the post parade and as they approach and load into the starting gate. If a horse is deemed unfit to race by the regulatory veterinarians, it will be scratched, as was the case in a number of circumstances this week. Both Chloe’s Dream and Freezing Point passed all inspections without incident.

“Additionally, Churchill Downs retained Mick Peterson, director of the Racetrack Safety Program at the University of Kentucky and the preeminent racetrack surface expert, to ensure safe and consistent conditions across racing and training surfaces. Peterson was previously retained by HISA as part of its national accreditation process, and we are confident in his ability to identify potential issues at play.  Dr. Peterson has assured both HISA and Churchill Downs that the racing surface is safe.”

HISA added that it is in constant communication with the KHRC as it leads investigations into the recent fatalities, and has already initiated its own, fully independent, investigation. HISA said it will share more details as they are available.

Saturday’s deaths compound an already tense situation following the deaths of two horses trained by Saffie Joseph Jr. These deaths contributed to the KHRC scratching his horses at Churchill and Churchill Downs suspending the trainer indefinitely. 

Additionally, Wild On Ice, who was scheduled to run in the Derby, was euthanized after fracturing a bone in his left hock following a morning workout April 27. Excluding Wild On Ice, the Derby saw five entries scratched resulting in a smaller-than-usual field of 18. 

Take Charge Brianna was euthanized after a fall during the fifth race May 2 on the turf at the Louisville track. 

Here Mi Song , who ran in the Churchill Downs Stakes (G1) was also vanned off Saturday, but according to the Associated Press, his X-rays were negative. 

Following the first four deaths, the track issued a statement that called those tragedies “unusual” and “unacceptable.” It added that track officials, riders, and horsemen have confidence in the racing surfaces.

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