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WEAR HATS AND DRINK MINT JULEPS, AMERICA, BUT MORE HORSES ARE DYING
Revelers are too busy partying on Derby Day to notice an endless trail of equine tragedy, which continued this past week at Churchill Downs, where four deaths added anguish to the Bob Baffert cloud
Do they know? Do they care? Probably not, because in their minds, horses competing at the Kentucky Derby are mere party props anyway. As thousands descend upon Louisville toting their frilly hats and seersucker finery — or just stumbling to the infield wasteland for permanent-hangover debauchery — they don’t want to be bugged by news beyond celebrity sightings. Namely, will Tom Brady come with his bro buddies after Gisele went solo to the Met Gala, in the continuing post-divorce saga of America’s former homecoming king and queen?
So don’t ruin the buzz of the Mint Julep crowd, already awash in bourbon, by mentioning the dead animals.
It hasn’t made big headlines this week, as editors aim to make readers feel good instead of practicing journalism, but four horses have died at Churchill Downs in a five-day span. This is the most undercovered ongoing story in sports media, the endless equine death toll, which has struck me as abusively rotten and doping-infested for a very long time, such as when 42 horses died at Santa Anita Park in 2019.
The difference now is that the sport, if we still can describe it as such, has promised a deep cleansing after considerable self-examination. So much for that steaming pile of manure from an industry too far gone to be scrubbed. It always has galled me that a monstrous bash can be thrown every Derby Day, extending across the land as a national drinking holiday, when horse racing reeks more than the barns where the illegal activity is hatched. Not only is it irresponsible to keep having the party, it’s thoughtless of revelers to carry on so casually after a procession of ambulances have hauled beautiful beings to euthanized endings. When human athletes die, the question becomes whether a coinciding sports event should be canceled or postponed. The consideration is a non-starter in horse racing, despite rampant suspicions.
To see tragedies at the hallowed track, under the Twin Spires, is especially disheartening and disturbing. Churchill Downs responded with an immediate statement, not the norm only hours before the crown-jewel event: “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.”
Among the dead is a Derby entry, Wild On Ice, trained by Joel Marr. Rated a longshot, the horse broke down with a musculoskeletal injury during a training session and suffered a fractured hind leg. “It was determined he couldn’t be saved. Wild On Ice had so much heart,” owner Frank Sumpter told his hometown newspaper, the El Paso Times. “He’ll forever be remembered. It’s a sad situation. My heart goes out to the team, Joel Marr and everyone who helped us get to this point. These horses give us so many great moments in life, and our team puts in so many hours taking care of the horses.”
And we’re just going to leave it at that? When 3-year-old filly Take Charge Briana, trained by Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, broke down from the same musculoskeletal issues?
Rightfully, Churchill Downs came down hard on Saffie Joseph Jr., trainer of 4-year-old Parents Pride and 5-year-old Chasing Artie, both of whom died after races. He was suspended indefinitely Thursday while his horse, Lord Miles, was scratched from the Derby. “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, the track’s president and chief operating officer. “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.” Joseph said what they usually say after a fatality: The bloodwork was clean, and he noticed nothing out of sorts with either horse. “When you don’t know something, that’s when it worries you the most,” the trainer said. “Something is wrong. A lot of thoughts run through your head, but you can drive yourself insane. But I’m very uneasy right now. It’s not something I would wish on anybody.”
Investigations are coming, one from the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority. CEO Lisa Lazarus told the Associated Press she is coordinating with Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. “When horses die unexpectedly, we all suffer, but we take comfort in the tools and practices we have collectively developed to investigate contributing factors and deploy those learnings to minimize future risk,” Lazarus said. “HISA also intends to conduct its own in-depth analysis of the fatalities and will share those findings once the full investigation is complete.”
So another cloud hovers over My Old Kentucky Home, just after the Bob Baffert cloud was swept away. The legendary trainer and face of the sport, he of the white hair and badass sunglasses, is still banned from the Derby as he serves the final year of a two-year suspension. His horse, Medina Spirit, won the Run For the Roses in 2021 but was disqualified after a positive test for an anti-inflammatory steroid. Betamethasone use is illegal, by Kentucky rules, on race day. Baffert was suspended weeks later, his history of drug violations finally catching up to him, with then-Churchill Downs president Mike Anderson basing his decision on Baffert’s “refusal to take responsibility for repeat violations.” Months later, his sin was followed by full-blown agony.
Medina Spirit died, after a workout at Santa Anita. Baffert blamed a heart attack, but the cause never was determined, with Lasix and omeprazole found in the horse’s system. He became a rogue in the sport, despite his stature, and sat out last year’s Triple Crown season with bans in Kentucky, Maryland and New York. A legal attempt to overturn the Churchill Downs suspension failed in February, when Baffert showed little remorse in telling a U.S. District Court, “My horses should have made much more money.” This after blaming his troubles on “cancel culture.”
The racetrack called the lawsuit “meritless and consistent with his pattern of failed drug tests, denials, excuses and attempts to blame others and identify loopholes in order to avoid taking responsibility for his actions.” He’ll re-enter the Triple Crown scene with National Treasure at the Preakness Stakes, where the state ban was lifted. But Baffert has been conspicuous by his absence in Louisville, where Barn 33 once was the liveliest place in sports on the first week in May. One of his horses, Reincarnate, was assigned to another trainer but is considered a Derby longshot.
Not that anyone cares about death’s heartbreak once the party starts and the booze flows. I wasn’t aware drinks were available beyond a mint julep, but if you prefer vodka to bourbon, there’s something called a lily. I’m sure that is bigger news than the fate of four horses, only two years after a winner was disqualified and later died. Will any of this be covered on NBC, which expects a large audience of 17 million-plus for coverage that starts at noon when post time is 6:57 p.m. ET? Answer: Not unless Mike Tirico grows a set, when he’s more likely to grow hair.
The trumpets aren’t for the races, you see. They serve as alerts to fuel up, on a day of American escapism, at a track that doubles as a funeral home.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.