LOUISVILLE, Kentucky—Frank Sumpter has spent the past few weeks reflecting on Wild On Ice’s remarkable journey to somehow work through his grief over the horse’s catastrophic injury just nine days before he was supposed to race in the Kentucky Derby.
Coming so close has provided some consolation through a rollercoaster of emotions.
“I felt that if heaven felt like this, I can’t wait to get to heaven, you know?” the Texas owner and trainer said of his colt, who was euthanized after a pre-Derby workout at Churchill Downs on April 27. “It kind of jerks the rug out from under you. For the trainer, myself and his family, it’s very devastating.”
The numbers suggest that horse racing is the safest it has been for the animals since at least 2009. Yet every death draws fresh criticism that the sport is far too cruel to continue and it sends every stable into mourning all over again, often out of sight.
Trainer Joe Lejzerowicz said he frequently flips through his phone for photos of Freezing Point, the horse he brags about like parents do about their children. In many respects, the majestic animals are like family to their handlers and owners. It makes their stunning deaths all the more painful to grasp.
That grief has been felt in particular with a recent spate of horse deaths at the home of the Kentucky Derby. Wild On Ice was the first of seven thoroughbreds to die at the track leading up to the marquee race on May 6, including two on the Derby undercard. More horses have been euthanized since then, include two last week to bring the shocking total to 12 at Churchill Downs over the past month.
The deaths have affected 11 trainers and 10 stables. Industry officials set up an emergency summit this week to discuss the problems at Churchill Downs, but the deaths stretch beyond the famous track.
The Preakness undercard in Baltimore was marred when Havnameltdown, trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, was euthanized following a leg injury. The incident provided a sad footnote to a triumphant day in which Baffert-trained National Treasure won the second jewel of the Triple Crown.
“When he got hurt, it’s just the most sickening feeling a trainer can have,” Baffert said.
While the sport endures scrutiny over the safety of its horses, their owners, trainers, jockeys and handlers must move forward after the wrenching decision to put a horse down simply because it is considered so difficult to heal a leg injury.
The emotional challenge is huge, especially at smaller stables run by Lejzerowicz and Sumpter.
Lejzerowicz struggled for words after 3-year-old Freezing Point went down with a leg injury during the Pat Day Mile before the Derby. Just like that, his Keeneland-based stable was down to one horse and the trainer still chokes up recalling the close relationship; Lejzerowicz even slept in a corner of Freezing Point’s stall one cold night last December at Fair Grounds track in New Orleans.
He hung the horse’s halter outside an empty stall after his death.
“That’s just the way that horse and I were,” said Lejzerowicz, who came up with the nickname of “Snowball” for the gray colt to reflect the slim chances he faced in buying the then-2-year-old at auction for $13,000. Freezing Point earned $102,910 with a win and two thirds in six starts.
“There were so many people saying how much that horse loved me, and I loved him,” he said. “It’s very hard getting past. … I mean, it’s kind of like losing a child.”
In the absence of organized grief counseling, horsemen find solace and support within the community around the barns.
Horsemen interviewed for this story said they understand that racing carries risk for such large animals even with diligent attention given to their health, safety and training. Earlier this month, new medication and anti-doping rules established by the federally-mandated Horseracing Safety Integrity Authority took effect. Other safety rules began last year.
The recent string of fatalities at racing’s most famous track is a reminder that a lot of work remains.
“It hits you bad every time it happens,” said trainer Dale Romans, whose 3-year-old colt, Rio Moon, was euthanized after sustaining a left leg injury at Churchill Downs on May 14. “We own these race horses, (and) they give us so much pleasure. We owe it to them to do whatever we can to make sure they don’t break down, to make sure that it’s as small a percentage as possible.”
Sumpter, 69, has leaned heavily on his faith and believes he and his wife, Ida, will find another special thoroughbred like Wild On Ice, whose stunning victory in the Grade 3 Sunland Park Derby in New Mexico as a 35-1 long shot earned a spot in the Derby.
Sumpter is determined to nurture another hopeful toward the Derby.
“I can’t look back so much on the negative because I couldn’t stay in this business if I did that,” he said. “I’ll always be talking about him and have his pictures and the memories that he gave us.”
Image credits: AP