Joseph: `Churchill Trying To Save Face'

Saffie Joseph, Jr. | Sarah Andrew photo

Churchill Downs has suspended Saffie Joseph, Jr. indefinitely and until further notice, the track announced Thursday. The announcement came on the heels of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC)'s order to scratch all horses trained by Joseph from racing at the track, including Lord Miles (Curlin) in Saturday's GI Kentucky Derby.

The news came at the end of a day of announcements from Joseph and others, after two of Joseph's horses died at Churchill this week, regarding whether or not he would seek to run his horses over the weekend.

Parents Pride (Maclean's Music) and Chasing Artie (We Miss Artie)–both owned by Ken Ramsey and trained by Joseph–suffered sudden-death events, the former after being eased mid-race Saturday, and the latter on his way back to the unsaddling enclosure Tuesday.

The statement from Churchill reads, “Churchill Downs Incorporated (“CDI”) announced today the indefinite suspension of trainer Saffie Joseph, Jr. until further notice. 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. CDI's decision follows the highly unusual sudden deaths of two horses trained by Joseph at Churchill Downs Racetrack: Parents Pride on Saturday and Chasing Artie on Tuesday. Lord Miles, trained by Joseph, has been scratched from Saturday's 149th running of the Kentucky 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, President and Chief Operating Officer of CDI. “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.”

The announcement followed one issued by the KHRC Board of Stewards about an hour earlier on Thursday. “For the betterment of racing, the health and welfare of our equine athletes, and the safety of our jockeys, all horses trained by trainer Saffie Joseph, Jr. are scratched effective immediately and until further notice,” the announcement read. “This action is taken after consultation with Mr. Joseph, and includes Lord Miles, who was entered into the 149th running of the Kentucky Derby.”

The KHRC also released a joint statement from Ray Perry, Secretary of the Public Protection Cabinet, and Jonathan Rabinowitz, Chairman of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, which reads, “Kentucky is committed to being the global leader in safety and integrity of horse racing. We fully support the stewards' actions today to ensure the safety of our equine and human athletes while an investigation is ongoing into the unusual circumstances surrounding these tragic fatalities.”

Joseph had originally sought to have some horses scratched while racing others, advancing a theory that because the two who died had come from his Keeneland barn earlier in the spring, that there may be a connection there. But blood tests on all of those horses revealed no abnormalities whatsoever.

Joseph was not pleased with Churchill's decision.

“What happened this week earlier, no one wants that to happen to anyone,” he said. “I've run almost 3,800 horses and never before had horses die like that for an unknown cause. I've had injuries before but nothing like this. We've done every test and everything in our power to find out what happened. It happened at a bad time. The Kentucky Racing Commission told me there was no wrongdoing on my part. They looked at my barn and said you did nothing wrong. Churchill asked me to scratch all the horses and I did. Then for Churchill to come out and suspend me indefinitely, they're trying to save their face. My horses are two of many that they've had die on the track. They want someone to take the blame for them. I take responsibility for my horses, but we are talking about other horses, also. It's sad. I worked hard and I try to do everything the right way and the correct way and then they jump the gun after everything that has been proven shows that I did no wrongdoing. They jumped the gun and are trying to tarnish my reputation and that's not right at all. They are doing it to save their face. In the last week, they've had five deaths, but they aren't talking about the other three horses. Ask them how many deaths they've had here over the last five years. They're not talking about that either.”

Lord Miles did not go to the track Thursday morning, but walked the shedrow, according to the Churchill Downs press notes.

Earlier Thursday, the KHRC said that an investigation would be carried out after the two sudden-death events from the same barn.

“The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission is actively investigating the recent and tragic racing and training fatalities in Kentucky,” said Kristin Voskuhl, a spokesperson for the Public Protection Cabinet, which oversees the KHRC. “The KHRC is committed to the health and safety of every horse and rider and will follow the robust investigative procedures in place for issues of safety and racing integrity.”

After Churchill Downs issued a statement Wednesday following five equine fatalities at the facility on the eve of the track's biggest annual weekend of racing, representatives for the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) and the KHRC issued their own respective statements in response to questions by the TDN.

The KHRC failed to answer questions about how long the post-mortem examinations will take, and if the findings will be made public–which is typically not the case.

The musculoskeletal and sudden-death necropsies are being performed at the University of Kentucky. “Both types of necropsy are complete post-mortem examinations. Musculoskeletal necropsies focus on a known injury, while sudden-death necropsies are broader in scope,” Voskuhl wrote.

While HISA's Anti-Doping and Medication Control (ADMC) program won't begin until May 22, the federal law's racetrack safety program went into effect on July 1 last year.

This program requires tracks to adhere to a baseline set of racetrack welfare and safety rules, including the retention of a core group of safety and welfare personnel and racetrack surface maintenance protocols.

HISA CEO Lisa Lazarus issued a statement Wednesday evening writing that there is “nothing more important” to HISA than the welfare of both horse and rider.

“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 wrote.

Lazarus added: “HISA's Racetrack Safety Program mandates that we work alongside state regulators and racetrack operators to protect our equine and human athletes. We are in contact with the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and Churchill Downs to support their processes. HISA also intends to conduct its own in-depth analysis of the fatalities and will share those findings once the full investigation is complete.”

Bill Finley and Dan Ross also contributed to this story. 

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