How Many Horses Have Died At Kentucky Derby? A Closer Look At The Dark Side Of The Race

2022 Kentucky Derby

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The Kentucky Derby usually tends to be a pretty jubilant affair thanks to the tens of thousands of spectators who spend their day at Churchill Downs consuming mint juleps while gearing up to root for the horses they bet on in the Run for the Roses.

At the risk of painting the world of horse racing with a wide brush, anyone who attends the event marketed as “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” is going to experience a level of glitz and glamour you’re usually not going to find if you head to a random racetrack on the weekend.

The cheery atmosphere at the Kentucky Derby (and the other Triple Crown races) also stands in stark contrast to the fairly morbid undercurrent that permeates the sport it revolves around, as the horse racing industry has routinely found itself at the center of controversy thanks to the many animals who die while training for and participating in events.

In 2019, Santa Anita Park in California ended up under the microscope after a total of 42 horses died at the racetrack over the course of the year, including a number that passed away under mysterious circumstances.

A fairly dark cloud also hung over Churchill Downs ahead of the 149th running of the Kentucky Derby in 2023, as four horses that headed to Louisville to compete in various races in the lead-up to the main event died in the week preceding to what is arguably the sport’s crown jewel.

None of those horses were slated to compete in the Kentucky Derby itself, but the race hasn’t been immune to tragedy over the years.

How many horses have died at the Kentucky Derby?

Eight Belles at the 2008 Kentucky Derby

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Statistics show the horse racing world loses between 700 and 800 equine athletes each year to various injuries and ailments, which includes a number of scenarios where the animals are euthanized to spare them from the pain that comes with suffering a serious fracture or similarly debilitating setback.

The fact that Churchill Downs is one of the most popular racetracks in the country obviously plays a role in the fact that it’s also one of the deadliest. However, the vast majority of those deaths don’t stem from what transpires when the horses hit the track for an actual competition.

Unfortunately, that was not the case in 2008. That year, Big Brown secured the victory over second-place finisher Eight Belles, who suddenly collapsed shortly after crossing the finish line.

The veterinarian who was summoned to treat Eight Belles determined the injuries (which were eventually diagnosed as fractures in both of his front legs) were crippling to a degree where the horse would’ve been subjected to unnecessary pain if he was moved off of the track, which led to the decision to administer medical euthanization.

That remains the only death that can be directly linked to a horse running the Kentucky Derby. With that said, you can’t really discuss this particular topic without mentioning Barbaro, who won the race in 2006 but broke his leg shortly after leaving the gate at the Preakness Stakes.

Barbaro was stable enough to undergo surgery, but he ultimately suffered a number of complications that led to his trainer and owners deciding to euthanize him in January 2007.

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Connor Toole is the Deputy Editor at BroBible. He is a New England native who went to Boston College and currently resides in Brooklyn, NY. Frequently described as "freakishly tall," he once used his 6'10" frame to sneak in the NBA Draft and convince people he was a member of the Utah Jazz.