Some people are calling on Wyoming Downs in Evanston to suspend its live horse races to investigate the deaths of three horses at the track last weekend.
Wyoming Downs says races will go on, but the incidents have prompted a strong response from people who feel they could have been prevented, as well as those defending the track.
The horses fell during three of the first five races Saturday at Wyoming Downs. All were 2-year-old quarter horses from Utah running in the Utah Bred Futurity Trials. The horses were euthanized shortly after they fell.
Animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) put out a statement about the incident this week, saying that three horse deaths are “not just a coincidence,” but rather “a massacre.”
“Racing at Wyoming Downs must be suspended immediately while a comprehensive investigation is conducted, and no horses should be forced onto that track again until modern prevention technology and proven safety measures are put in place,” PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo said.
Wyoming Downs planned Owner Eric Nelson confirmed to Cowboy State Daily on Friday that races scheduled for Saturday are still on and no changes have been made to the facility or its operations despite PETA’s request.
“We appreciate their comments for their own views; however, there are a lot of precautions that are in place, as (are,) many safety measures are being measured again,” he said. “We believe the racing is safe for this coming weekend.”
Nelson said his staff inspect track conditions. On-site veterinarians and trainers inspect the health of horses before each event.
How Was It Handled?
Utah resident Ashley Peay was at Saturday’s race and told Cowboy State Daily over email she believes the tragic event was not handled properly by Wyoming Downs staff.
Peay said what was most disturbing was the lack of acknowledgement from the announcer about what had happened.
“They kept talking as if nothing had happened and were announcing the winners and stats,” she said. “What in the actual hell?”
Peay said this contrasts with common practice at rodeo events, where an announcer usually asks the crowd to stay calm and quiet at least until a fallen cowboy gets up or is taken away in an ambulance.
“At the races.. Nothing!” she said. “They acted as if the crowd was too stupid to know what was happening!”
Utah resident Tina Brown was also at Saturday’s race with her husband and grandson but disagrees with Peay. Brown said the incident was handled the best it could have been. She said the horse accidents took place in plain view in front of the main grandstand, so it was already obvious to the spectators what had happened.
“I don’t know what they wanted them to say, there was nothing to announce,” she said.
Utah resident Sheri Hansen was one of the trainers at the Wyoming Downs racetrack on Saturday. She said all three of the fallen horse’s trainers were highly distraught after the horses went down.
“It was heartbreaking for all who were involved,” she said.
Hansen said she personally knows the trainers and owners of the three horses, who she said all take care of their horses responsibly. She said there were no warning signs that any of the horses were unfit to race.
“They were all in excellent care, excellent hands,” she said. “It was emotionally draining for all of them.”
After the horses went down, Hansen said Wyoming Downs management expressed great concern for what happened and immediately started questioning jockeys and trainers. Hansen, who has been working at Wyoming Downs since it was founded in 1985, said the death of three horses in one day is unheard of at the racetrack.
Two of the three jockeys who fell were taken to the hospital on Saturday, but Nelson said the rider who was more seriously injured was already riding again by the next day.
The first horse that fell got back up almost immediately after falling but had visibly suffered a broken leg.
The second horse never got back up after falling, and a barrier and horse trailer were brought in to shield the audience from seeing the carnage. Peay said she never saw this horse lift its head after falling. She speculated that it may have suffered a heart attack, as horses that suffer a broken leg sometimes do when they attempt to get back up.
Brown credited the track staff for the way it handled the incident, avoiding what she said could have been a very traumatic experience for her grandson.
“They handled it very well,” she said.
Peay said no staff members went out onto the track in between the horse falls to inspect conditions that were listed as “fast” on the day of racing.
Nelson told Cowboy State Daily earlier this week that because the horses fell in different locations and suffered shoulder injuries, there was no reason to believe the track conditions were to blame. There were no further injuries at the track that day or the next.
Some expressed frustration on social media that the track’s races weren’t suspended after the third fall.
An inspection of video from two of the three falls shows that although the horses didn’t go down in the exact same location, they did fall in a similar section of the track. The third horse fell after crossing the finish line.
Casper resident Shaun Stone was not at Saturday’s races, but his family has a long history of racing horses around the country. Stone believes the track conditions are likely to blame for what happened and said many racing tracks’ surfaces aren’t maintained below the top 3 inches of dirt.
“You can easily have a sinkhole underneath that with a smooth surface,” he said.
All three of the horses were two-years old. This fact has also drawn criticism from some including Peay.
“Mentally, they are just still babies,” she said.
Peay said that a horse that starts running at the age of two is set up to be running in a historic event like the Kentucky Derby by hitting the prime running age of three or four.
According to a 2021 study by the National Library of Medicine, at 2-years old, a horse has achieved most measures of maturity including height, closure of its growth plates, and weight.
Two of the horses that died last weekend had never raced before, while the other had run in one race.
“Those are pretty green horses, they are very young, and conditioning of course is a real concern with upper shoulder injuries,” Nelson said.
Hansen said horses can be safely run at 2-years old, but it depends on the growth and maturity of the individual horse.
The equine deaths are currently under investigation with the assistance of the Wyoming Gaming Commission. Toxicology reports will be filed on the horse’s blood samples.
“I don’t know if we will ever find out what happened,” Hansen said.
Horse racing was suspended at legendary horse racing track Churchill Downs earlier this month and moved to a different Kentucky racetrack to allow federal and state regulators to investigate the deaths of 12 horses there over a span of five weeks.
Churchill Downs suspended trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. days before the Kentucky Derby event after two of his horses suddenly died. After the derby, Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher was suspended and fined because of a positive drug test involving his horse that dates back to 2022.
At California’s Santa Anita Park in 2019, 42 horses died at the track. It was staff from Santa Anita, Nelson said, that helped design the Wyoming Downs track.
Stone said there is a mutual responsibility between the track and competitors when it comes to ensuring animal safety.
“They want to do anything they can to cover themselves from a horse going down,” he said. “Not to point a finger at the track but they have just as much responsibility as anybody else.”
He said there are a number of other issues that can lead to the demise of a horse, including the weight of the jockey and how well a horse was conditioned.
Nelson said jockeys and trainers are constantly scrutinized at Wyoming Downs.
He said the responsibility to assure animal well-being is out of his purview and falls on the trainers who work with and condition the horses and the veterinarians who inspect them. Nelson said it’s the responsibility of the owner and trainers, not he as the track owner, to decide whether a horse is ready to race.
“My service is the racetrack, their services are the animal safety part of it,” he said.
Peay owns a handful of ex-racehorses. She says about half were well taken care of and the other half were owned by a multitude of owners and “tossed around like trash.”
In the past, Stone said many trainers and owners disregarded requirements on how often a horse could race.
“It’s now better regulated but there’s still people who are going to do as much as they can to make money,” he said.
But he also said a trainer is incentivized to keep up the health of a horse as it is often their one source of income.
Hansen believes 99% of horse trainers and owners treat their horses well and any reputation that they are involved in the sport just for money is false.
“I get really upset when people say they don’t care about the horses and it’s just a money thing,” she said.
One thing Peay and Brown do agree on is that they may not attend another horse racing event in the future. Brown usually goes to a few horse races a year, while Peay is a rare attendee.
Brown said she has no issues with Wyoming Downs whatsoever and believes faulty claims are being made against the business. She has more overarching questions about the sport as a whole.
“It’s made me question how much I’ll enjoy horse racing in the future,” Brown said.
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.