Odanis Acuna, a veteran exercise rider for trainer Kenny McPeek, died early Saturday morning during a training accident at Churchill Downs. He was 42. The accident occurred shortly after the track opened for training when the unraced 2-year-old New York Harbor (Verrazano), with Acuna aboard, fell about a sixteenth of a mile before the finish line. Onsite emergency medical technicians who arrived on the scene to treat Acuna believe he died instantly, while New York Harbor sustained catastrophic injuries.
“Today is a somber day,” said Churchill Downs Racetrack President Kevin Flanery. “We extend our deepest sympathy to Odanis’ family, friends, colleagues and the entire team at trainer Kenny McPeek’s barn. Our hearts are with them in this difficult time of extreme sorrow.”
Known to his racetrack friends as “Cuba” –a nod to his native homeland–Acuna is remembered by friends as a tireless worker who was dedicated to improving the life of his family.
“Odanis was one of the hardest working guys you’d ever meet; he was working the American dream,” said McPeek, who employed Acuna for nearly a decade. “He galloped for me in the morning and worked for the feed company in the afternoon.”
Training at Churchill Downs ceased Saturday morning shortly after the accident. A moment of silence was observed in Acuna’s honor prior to Saturday’s first race.
“When he started with me he had little or nothing and he got himself pretty well setup and had been saving money,” McPeek said. “He bought himself a car and was getting ready to buy a house. He was hard at it all day, every day. We worked together a long time and he traveled with us wherever we went. He rode a lot of my best horses for years and was a guy who could handle just about any horse you put him on. He was just a good guy and loved what he was doing. I am just sickened by this tragedy.”
A GoFundMe page had already raised better than $31,000 for Acuna’s family by 7 p.m. ET Saturday, including donations from fellow jockeys, trainers, owners, bloodstock agents and horse racing personalities. Funeral arrangements and a memorial service for the family are pending.