Trainer suspended from Kentucky Derby after multiple horse deaths

Right: Kentucky Derby hopeful Verifying working out at Churchill Downs. Left: Saffie Joseph Jr., a horserace trainer who has been suspended by Churchill Downs after the mysterious deaths of two of his horses. AP Photo/Getty Images

A racehorse trainer has been indefinitely suspended by Churchill Downs, Inc. (CDI), the company that operates the famous Kentucky Derby, amid an investigation into the “highly unusual sudden deaths” of two of his horses.

The two horses, Parents Pride and Chasing Artie, died on Saturday and Tuesday respectively at the Churchill Downs namesake racetrack in Louisville, Kentucky. Both were trained by Saffie Joseph Jr., 36, and both collapsed on the track and died after competing in races.

Joseph’s horses are not the only unusual deaths that have cast a pall over Churchill Downs in the final preparations for the Kentucky Derby on Saturday. Four horses have died at the racetrack over the span of just five days.

Joseph’s suspension was handed down Thursday, and it will impact another one of his horses who was set to run in the Kentucky Derby. Lord Miles will be scratched from the race, which is the first of three events that make up the coveted Triple Crown.

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Saffie Joseph Jr. the trainer of Lord Miles during the morning training for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 04, 2023 in Louisville, Kentucky. Andy Lyons/Getty Images

“CDI’s decision follows the highly unusual sudden deaths of two horses trained by Joseph at Churchill Downs racetrack,” the company’s statement reads.

“The suspension prohibits Joseph, or any trainer directly or indirectly employed by Joseph, from entering horses in races or applying for stall occupancy at all CDI-owned racetracks,” the company said.

“Given the unexplained sudden deaths, we have reasonable concerns about the condition of his horses, and decided to suspend him indefinitely until details are analyzed and understood,” said Bill Mudd, CDI president and chief operating officer.

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“The safety of our equine and human athletes and integrity of our sport is our highest priority. We feel these measures are our duty and responsibility,” he added.

Investigators have yet to find any cause of death for Joseph’s two horses, which occurred in a 72-hour span. Meanwhile, two other racehorses also died at Churchill Downs over the past week: Wild on Ice and Take Charge Briana.

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Wild on Ice, a longshot Derby contender, was hurt during training on April 27 while 3-year-old filly Take Charge Briana was injured in Tuesday’s race. After suffering musculoskeletal injuries, the two racehorses were “euthanized for humane reasons,” CDI said.

Two other horses threw off their exercised riders during on-track training on Thursday, including Derby entrant Verifying. Neither rider was injured.

Kentucky Derby hopeful Verifying works out at Churchill Downs Wednesday, May 3, 2023, in Louisville, Ky. The 149th running of the Kentucky Derby is scheduled for Saturday, May 6. AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

After learning about this suspension, Joseph told local WDRB that he believes he’s being unfairly blamed by CDI.

“I’m the scapegoat,” he said Thursday. “They’ve had more deaths this week, and here is Saffie, this is the problem.”

“I’ve never had horses that die from (an unknown) issue before. They’ve had injuries but never from something that was unknown,” he said.

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Joseph said earlier Thursday that he was questioned by investigators from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC) and Churchill Downs.

“They found no wrongdoing on our part,” he said at the time.

Joseph received permission from the KHRC to scratch five horses from races on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, according to the Daily Racing Form. He already had scratched one on Wednesday. He told reporters earlier in the day that he scratched any horse that had been in contact with the two that died out of an abundance of caution.

Despite the deaths, Joseph had planned to run Lord Miles in the Derby. The colt arrived from Florida. The two dead horses had been at Keeneland in Lexington.

Joseph, a third-generation trainer, said earlier Thursday that investigators examined his barn, checked the horses’ veterinary records and took blood samples from each of his horses, which showed nothing abnormal. The feed, hay, straw and supplements used by the horses were checked, too.

The deaths are the first for Joseph, who came to Florida in 2011 after training in his native Barbados.

“It crushes you. It knocks your confidence, it makes you doubt everything,” he said.

At the same time, he added, “There’s two ways: You can run away from it and pretend it didn’t happen or you could face it and find out what we can do.”

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The industry was rocked in 2019, when more than 40 horses died at Santa Anita in California. As a result, a raft of safety reforms were enacted that have spread around the country.

“The horses get great care and we do our best to prevent these kind of things, but they still happen,” Joseph said. “A lot of times in those sudden deaths you never get answers.”

— With files from The Associated Press

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