On the afternoon of Saturday, May 20, I joined a group of 50 animal advocates at Baltimore, Maryland’s Pimlico Race Course to protest the Preakness Stakes — second in the horse racing industry’s Triple Crown series, between the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs and the Belmont Stakes in New York.
As we chanted “You bet, they die!,” events inside the track unfortunately proved us right.
Racing Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert had entered four horses in the Preakness weekend races — and was making his first Triple Crown appearance since his 2021 Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit failed a drug test, was disqualified, and then died of an apparent heart attack at age three. Baffert had been banned in 2022 from participation at all three tracks — Churchill Downs, Pimlico, and Belmont Park — and was still banned by Churchill Downs from the 2023 Kentucky Derby.
In the Chick Lang Stakes, the sixth race of the day, Baffert’s horse Havnameltdown became at least the 76th horse to die in his care since 2000.1 The horse broke down on the track, throwing his jockey, and was euthanized on the spot due to a “non-operable left fore fetlock injury.”
Just hours later came the Preakness Stakes, the 13th race — and National Treasure gave Baffert a record-breaking eighth Preakness title. But as the Washington Post’s Dave Sheinin wrote, “it could be Saturday’s sixth race, rather than the more hyped 13th, that carries the weight of history….It was a horrific scene that melded two of the most unsavory and painful storylines in the sport — a spate of equine deaths at high-profile tracks and Baffert’s history of doping violations and suspensions — and shoved the entire, smoldering mess into the face of the public on one of the most-watched days on the racing calendar.”2
Sheinin’s Post piece went on to quote PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo: “Pimlico should have followed Churchill Downs’ example and barred Bob Baffert from the track. The tragic death of Havnameltdown is the latest in a long list of fatalities. The racing industry must kick out the bad guys or it will have blood on its hands as well as blood on its tracks.”
Meanwhile, representatives of Horseracing Wrongs, which organized the protest I joined, told the media: “Horse deaths are built into the system. These horses will keep dying until horse racing ends.”3
That point was underscored by yet another horse death back at Churchill Downs, when 3-year-old filly Swanson Lake suffered a left-hind injury that led to her being euthanized. She was the ninth horse to die since April 27 after racing or training at the Kentucky track.
And of course, Bob Baffert wasn’t the only trainer running multiple horses in Pimlico’s Preakness weekend races who has an unsavory history.
For example, there’s Baffert’s fellow hall-of-famer Steve Asmussen, who owned and trained my horse Charlie before I rescued him. Asmussen is North America’s all-time leader in training wins with 10,000 as of this year — and he also holds the distinction of 70 horse drugging and other violations, the highest among Hall of Fame trainers.4
Another example is trainer Chad Brown, who the U.S. Department of Labor ordered in 2019 to pay a total of $1,617,673 in back wages, damages, and penalties to grooms and other employees for “willful violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act and the H-2B non-immigrant visa program.”5 Brown was also arrested in August 2022 for pushing a woman down a flight of stairs in his home and attempting to choke her; in November he accepted a plea bargain for a lesser violation.6
A recent ESPN piece pondered whether horse racing might “go the same way as dog racing, the circus and Sea World.”7 I am proud to help push it along that path!
1 – See The dark side of Bob Baffert’s reign (Washington Post, 6/18/21) for an analysis that counted 74 horses. Subsequent to that article, Baffert’s horse Medina Spirit died 12/6/21.
2 – National Treasure wins the Preakness for embattled trainer Bob Baffert (Washington Post, 5/20/23)
3 – Protesters call for end to horseracing in Maryland on Preakness Day (WBAL-TV, 5/20/23)
4 – Horseman Steven Asmussen voted in to Hall of Fame despite doping fine (Times Union, 8/12/16) and Thoroughbredrulings.com
5 – U.S. Department of Labor Investigation results in New York horse racing trainer paying $1,617,673 in back wages, damages, penalties (U.S. Department of Labor, 5/22/19)
6 – Report: Trainer Chad Brown Pleads Guilty To Reduced Charge In Domestic Violence Case (Paulick Report, 11/14/22)
7 – Kentucky Derby, Preakness obscure death in horse racing (ESPN 5/19/23)