Calls for change emerge after 4 equine deaths at Churchill Downs in less than a week

Animal Wellness Action President Wayne Pacelle says horses aren't prioritized enough following four deaths in 6 days.
Published: May. 3, 2023 at 11:34 PM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - Equine athletes are dying. Four horses have died at Churchill Downs in six days with one of them being a derby horse.

The news is marring the most important week of the year for horseracing in Kentucky.

The cluster of deaths this week comes as horse racing’s new antidoping program that was supposed to be in place, got postponed until late May.

There’s a major shock factor when it comes to the deaths, especially considering the horses were so young ranging from three to five years old.

A factor making those in the horse racing industry wondering if a change is imminent.

“Why is there a suspension while the most important race in all of horse racing is about to occur?” Animal Wellness Action President Wayne Pacelle asked.

He’s referring to the mid-May suspension of horse racing’s new antidoping program that would create a national standard for testing.

The Federal Trade Commission oversees the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority and said the suspension was made to “avoid the chaos and confusion that could occur if the anti-doping rule became effective on May 1.”

Pacelle believes the suspension may be one of the reasons for this cluster of injuries.

“Some drugs may be making them more vulnerable as they’re racing at 45 miles per hour on a track,” Pacelle said. “It may have to do with the selective breeding or the champagne glass legs for these horses and they may just be simply more vulnerable to breakdowns because of the breeding.”

In a statement Wednesday, Churchill Downs called the events highly unusual and completely unacceptable, going on to say they have full confidence in their racing surfaces and that riders and horsemen feel the same way.

You can find their full statement below:

Transparency is an important component of our commitment to safety and accountability in horse racing. We share the concern of our fans who have questions about the recent equine fatalities at Churchill Downs Racetrack and we extend our sincere condolences to those who love and cared for these horses.

Since Opening Night of Kentucky Derby Week, two horses trained by Saffie Joseph Jr. have died suddenly of cause yet to be identified: Parents Pride on Saturday and Chasing Artie on Tuesday. Two other horses sustained musculoskeletal injuries from which they could not recover: Wild on Ice last Thursday while

training on dirt and Take Charge Briana during a turf race on Tuesday. Wild on Ice was transported to Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital for care, but both were ultimately euthanized for humane reasons. While a series of events like this is highly unusual, it is completely unacceptable. We take this very seriously and

acknowledge that these troubling incidents are alarming and must be addressed. We feel a tremendous responsibility to our fans, the participants in our sport and the entire industry to be a leader in safety and continue to make significant investments to eliminate risk to our athletes. We have full confidence in

our racing surfaces and have been assured by our riders and horsemen that they do as well. Each horse was transported to the University of Kentucky Veterinary Diagnostics Lab for complete necropsies. We continue to press for answers and are working with regulators to conduct swift and thorough

investigations. The safety and well-being of horses is a critical issue for which everyone in the industry shares responsibility; however, we will continue to take every measure to ensure that we are providing the safest possible environment for horses on our property.

Churchill Downs

The same turf track three of the four horses were injured on was under scrutiny in 2022 after it was installed and led to it barely being used due to emerging problems.

Pacelle believes the care of the horses should be at the forefront.

“The gambling, the pageantry, the winnings, all of those things are important, they’re a part of the industry, they’re a part of the marketing,” Pacelle said. “But don’t forget about the horses, they’re responsible for the entire enterprise.”

Two more horses were reported to be pulled up and vanned off from their respective races Wednesday at Churchill Down. The injuries are not expected to be life-threatening and they are both back at their barns and are being monitored.