Saffie Joseph Jr.

Two horses trained by Saffie Joseph Jr. have died at Churchill Downs in the last week. WDRB Photo Rick Bozich

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) —On Thursday morning at 10:30, trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. stood outside Barn 41 on the Churchill Downs backside and answered questions for more than 15 minutes.

His dark wavy hair pulled behind his head, Joseph’s eyes reflected the dull glaze of a considerable sleep deficit. At times he seemed on the verge of tears. But after agreeing to talk, he did not leave his spot until every question was answered.

With two horses that he trained dying after their races in the last week, Joseph said he understood the scrutiny created by the pair of unexplained deaths. He said that animal activists were welcome to spend a day or even a week in his barn. He welcomed it.

That might happen one day. But not this weekend.

Joseph will not race another horse at any Churchill Downs facility until further notice. That includes Lord Miles, his Wood Memorial winner who drew post position 19 for the Kentucky Derby Saturday.

On Thursday afternoon the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission ruled Joseph out of all races at Churchill this weekend, “for the betterment of racing, the health and welfare of our equine athletes, and the safety of our jockeys.”

Minutes later Churchill took it up a notch, suspending Joseph from all of its tracks because of the unusual circumstances of the deaths.

It was the right call.

It was absolutely the right call until somebody provides specific and credible explanations for what happened to those horses.

These were not the muscular-skeletal injuries that typically result in horses being euthanized . Barbaro in the 2006 Preakness was horrible. Eight Belles in the 2008 Derby was heart-breaking. Nobody liked the tragedies. But they understood them — leg injuries that many horses cannot survive.

If Lord Miles, the colt trained by Joseph, was injured Saturday while racing in the Kentucky Derby public confidence in the safety of horse racing would shake in ways it has never shaken before.

You want your audience leaving the track or the telecast talking about how the race was run. You do not want your audience discussing why a horse died.

Racing has too many unconnected dots. This is a sport that took down the Derby winner two years ago after Churchill hung a 2-year suspension of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert because of a medication violation with Medina Spirit.

If you’re serious about horse safety you have to protect horses in the barn of Joseph. He had no explanation for Parents Pride, a 4-year-old filly, collapsing and dying after the eighth race Saturday night and Chasing Artie, a 5-year-old gelding, dying in a similar manor Tuesday.

Horses cannot protect themselves. They can’t ask out of race because they’re tired or sore. They need protection.

Joseph wanted to push forward with the horses in his stable that did not train at Keeneland. In the absence of any answers from the bloodwork, the only connection Joseph could make between his two horses that died was they trained at the track in Lexington.

That’s not good enough. Joesph said officials from Churchill and the Racing Commission visited his barn Thursday, entering the shed-row, his stalls and office. He said it was “due diligence” and “normal protocol.” Joseph also said the inspectors “found nothing wrong on our part.”

Could be. Neither the Racing Commission nor Churchill Downs said anything about medication in their statements addressing Joseph’s suspension.

But they did say they “had reasonable concerns about the condition of his horses.”

Maybe there is nothing sinister about this. Joseph said he did not have an answer. He wondered if it was a contamination or perhaps a virus.

He is 36, a third-generation horseman from Barbados. He's been the leading trainer at Gulfstream Park north of Miami, Florida this winter and spring. According to Equibase, Joseph ranks 12th nationally in earnings among all trainers with overall winnings of $3,034,659.

“No one wants these things to happen,” Joseph said. “I wouldn’t wish them on the worst person you could find. Like, it crushes you. It knocks your confidence. It makes you doubt everything. It makes you question everything.

“But there’s two ways: You can run away from it and pretend it didn’t happen. Or you can do things and find out what you can do. And that’s what we’re going to do.”

That is what he needs to do. But first Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission did what they needed to do for the waning integrity of the game.

No horses from Saffie Joseph’s barn will race at any Churchill tracks this weekend. With 150,000 fans on site and the world watching on television, the track must remain committed to safer racing without tragedies.

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