I used to love the Kentucky Derby, but horse deaths have caused me to hate racing

I used to love horse racing.

It was in my blood.

My grandparents always had the Daily Racing Form at their kitchen table. Their bookie brought it by their old shotgun house on Lampton Street every morning. My grandmother was arrested by the FBI in 1974 for placing a $50 bet on a horse over the telephone.

I could walk from my house to the Twin Spires.

I can hardly stand to go to the track anymore.

Especially this past week — a week that has seen more death than I can ever recall at Churchill Downs — there has been an almost daily reminder of how brutal this sport is.

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Seven horses die at Churchill Downs

Since April 27, two horses collapsed and died and five others had to be given a cocktail of drugs that killed them because of injuries to their legs.

The latest to go down was Freezing Point, a 50-1 longshot who pulled up in the stretch in Saturday's 8th race, after his trainer said he took a bad step.

Before that, it was Chloe’s Dream, a gelding in the second race Saturday. He pulled up lame in the first turn and had to be vanned off before he was put down.

Another horse was vanned off in an equine ambulance.

An equine ambulance leaves the track after Race 10 at Churchill Downs on Saturday, May 6,2023
An equine ambulance leaves the track after Race 10 at Churchill Downs on Saturday, May 6,2023

Horses have been dying in this sport since the beginning of time; I’ve had misgivings about the sport for years.

The first death I can recall was Ruffian, the great filly who snapped a couple of sesamoid bones in her right front leg during a match race at Belmont Park against Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure.

That was in 1975, when I was 9 and coming off the high of Secretariat winning the Triple Crown two years earlier and the 100th running of the Kentucky Derby a year later.

I didn’t understand then why a horse had to die because of a broken leg. I guess there’s a part of me that still doesn’t.

Go for Wand went down in the 1990 Breeder’s Cup, again at Belmont, and tore a couple of ligaments. When the jockey rolled out of the way so he didn’t get trampled by other horses, Go for Wand popped up and began running on three legs — the fourth leg flopping as she ran.

The pictures in Sports Illustrated were horrific.

For me, it was the worse thing I had ever seen on a horse track until 15 years ago.

That’s when the owners of the highly regarded filly, Eight Belles, decided to put her up against the boys in the 134th Kentucky Derby.

She finished second, a few strides behind Big Brown, and then just beyond the finish line, she fell, snapping the cannon and sesamoid bones in both her front legs. They killed her on the track.

They didn’t have a choice.

That one, I saw in person, watching from the roof of Churchill Downs.

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Can the sport of horseracing survive these deaths?

I know the arguments for these horses, that they wouldn’t even exist if we weren’t breeding them to run in races; or conversely, if they weren’t in races, they would be running in fields with holes in the ground and snapping bones in those pencil-thin legs.

I get it and don’t care. It's a brutal sport and I really don't want to watch.

We still don’t know yet what caused two horses, both of them under the care of trainer Saffie Joseph Jr., to die sudden deaths. Churchill did what it should have and suspended Joseph; the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission did what it needed to do and scratched Joseph's Derby contender.

But we have to think we may have something to do with the other horses breaking their legs as jockeys coax them toward the finish line. We’ve used selective breeding to create a line of horses with huge engines and spindly legs that just can’t take the pounding.

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Horseracing is already a niche sport that struggles outside of the big events like the Triple Crown races and the Breeder’s Cup. It’s hard to imagine the sport surviving too many deaths; people generally don't want to watch blood sports.

It lost me when Eight Belles went down.

Now when I watch a horse race, I don’t root for the horses in an exacta box to finish first and second. I root for them to make it to the barn alive, and I hold my breath as they thunder down the stretch.

My grandparents saw it differently. They loved it for the sport.

I just hate it for the death.

Joseph Gerth can be reached at jgerth@courierjournal.com.

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This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: 7 horses died at Churchill Downs, exposing brutality of Kentucky Derby