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String of horse deaths before the Kentucky Derby reignites scrutiny about the sport

An equine ambulance arrives at Churchill Downs during the Kentucky Derby on Saturday in Louisville, Ky.
Michael Reaves
Getty Images
An equine ambulance arrives at Churchill Downs during the Kentucky Derby on Saturday in Louisville, Ky.

The 149th Kentucky Derby may be over, but questions about what led to a string of horse fatalities at its famed track have just begun.

Over the past week, a total of seven horses died in the lead-up to the final race on Saturday — prompting an investigation into the deaths and fueling outrage from animal rights activists.

The disturbing death toll seen at Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, is the latest scandal to hit the horse race industry despite recent efforts to make the sport safer for animals.

Joseph Grove of the group Animal Wellness Action said the death toll was alarming.

"As a native Louisvillian, I get the passion people here and across the country feel about this iconic race," Grove said in a statement. "But the care of the horses must be our first priority, and this cluster of horse deaths is startling. Lamentations are not enough."

Here's what to know:

Four out of the seven horses were euthanized after sustaining injuries

The first death occurred on April 29. Code of Kings, a 3-year-old gelding, repeatedly kept flipping and broke his neck before a race, his trainer, Tim Glyshaw, toldDaily Racing Form. Glyshaw added that his horse appeared to be fixated on the lights at a nearby DJ booth prior to turning over.

On Tuesday, a horse named Take Charge Briana was euthanized after getting hurt during a race. Two days later, another horse, Wild on Ice, was also euthanized following an injury during training, Louisville Public Media reported.

Two horses, Parents Pride and Chasing Artie, also died this past week under mysterious circumstances, Churchill Downs said. Their trainer, Saffie Joseph Jr., has been suspendedindefinitely for the "unexplained sudden deaths."

On Saturday, two more horses, Chloe's Dream and Freezing Point, were euthanized after sustaining racing injuries which appeared irrecoverable.

Chloe's Dream, who competed in the second race of the day, suffered from a right front knee injury, trainer Jeff Hiles told The Associated Press. Freezing Point's left ankle was badly hurt during the eighth race, trainer Joe Lejzerowicz told the AP.

Kentucky racing officials launch investigation into deaths

Churchill Downs described each horse fatality as "unique" — adding that there was "no discernable pattern detected in the injuries sustained."

Still, the group said it will partner with Kentucky Horseracing Commission and the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority to investigate the incidents and learn how to improve the safety of the sport.

"We will rigorously work to understand what caused these incidents," Churchill Downs said in a statement.

The University of Kentucky will be conducting post-mortem examinations on the racehorses, said Kristin Voskuhl, a spokesperson for the Public Protection Cabinet which includes the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.

"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," Voskukl said in a statement, Louisville Public Media reported.

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Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.