Requiem for the 7 Dead Horses of Kentucky Derby Week

Her voice catches and tears threaten to follow, but Randy Gootzeit wants you to know about how a strapping gray colt nicknamed Snowball brought a couple of horse lovers back to the track, and how they got their hearts broken.

Snowball, known on the track as Freezing Point, suffered a fatal breakdown during an undercard race at Churchill Downs on May 6, becoming the seventh horse to die in an agonizing eight days leading up to the Kentucky Derby. The deaths, as yet unexplained, have cast a pall over this year’s Triple Crown and renewed questions about the safety of the animals as the sport prepares for Saturday’s Preakness Stakes in Baltimore.

But for Gootzeit and her trainer Joe Lejzerowicz, the troubles in horse racing are just a backdrop to their private grief.

“We’d have done anything to save him, but we could not,” Gootzeit said. “We miss him desperately.”

Gootzeit, 71, lives near Phoenix. She galloped and trained horses in the 1970s and ’80s at Belmont Park, but left the racetrack to return to school and become a physical therapist. She works on humans, but has also applied what she learned to horses.

She had not thought much about returning to the game until she talked to Lejzerowicz about buying a 2011 Volkswagen from him. A veteran trainer, he had learned his horsemanship under the Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens and had worked for more than 30 years in barns from New York to California. Lejzerowicz was in Phoenix as well, selling cars and taking a break from the sport while learning to cope with Ménière’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear that causes severe vertigo and ringing in the ears.

He and Gootzeit made an immediate connection. Their love of horses made them friends, but it was their shared view of how to treat the animals that made them business partners: Don’t push them, keep them sound, choose rest over medication.

“We were coming out of the pandemic, and it was clear no one’s timeline was guaranteed,” Gootzeit said, “I told Joe that it was time to bet on ourselves.”

With Gootzeit providing a bankroll of just $20,000, it took the pair some time to get back in the sport. They struck out at three auctions before Lejzerowicz fell in love with No. 954 at the Ocala, Fla., 2-year-old training sale last June. The colt was balanced, muscled and declared by a vet to be perfectly sound.

Surely, they thought, they couldn’t afford him.

“He’s perfect, but we don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting him,” Lejzerowicz told Gootzeit.

Lejzerowicz was so certain that their electronic bid would be topped that he was taking a nap in his truck when someone knocked and told him the colt was his for $13,000.

The pair took their time with the colt, whose official name was Freezing Point (a nod to his sire, Frosted), figuring out his eccentricities and admiring his work ethic.

“He was a little spitfire,” Lejzerowicz, 53, said. “He was playful. I’d shake my finger at him, and he’d try to push it back at me.”

Lejzerowicz took Snowball to Keeneland in Kentucky to get him ready to race. Gootzeit flew in every couple of weeks to help with training and tend to the colt. Snowball won once in three tries as a 2-year-old and began catching the eye of deeper-pocketed outfits. Gootzeit turned down offers of $150,000, $480,000 and, after Snowball finished third last month in the Lafayette Stakes, $600,000.

One of Gootzeit’s mentors had advised her years earlier to take an offer for a horse only if the money was life-changing. This was a lot of money, but Snowball was already life-changing.

The gray colt had reconnected her to some of her happiest times and offered an opportunity to apply her knowledge of physical therapy and test her theories about what makes a happy horse.

In Lejzerowicz, she had not only found a friend but also a horseman who shared her values. “We loved the horse too much to consign him to anyone else’s care,” Gootzeit said.

And that is why the pair were at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. They watched their horse run in the $500,000 Pat Day Mile Stakes just a couple of hours before the Derby.

They watched from the rail near the winner’s circle. Snowball broke cleanly from the starting gate, but within a quarter-mile, Gootzeit and Lejzerowicz recognized their horse was in distress.

“His head popped up in the air,” Gootzeit said. “It swung left. It swung right. Something happened. I knew something bad happened.”

Within 30 minutes, Snowball was diagnosed with a broken bone in his left front ankle. Within an hour, Gootzeit and Lejzerowicz were saying tearful goodbyes to him. After the colt was euthanized, the vet passed on a locket of hair from his mane as a talisman.

Snowball will never be replaced, but the pair will press on. They are looking for another sound thoroughbred whose talent they can help surface.

“We are not going to be driven out of the game,” Gootzeit said. “We want to succeed honestly and cleanly and give our horses the love and respect they deserve. “

3-year-old gelding

Injured his left hind leg during training and was euthanized

The jockey for this gritty Texas-bred horse, Ken Tohill, has won more than 4,100 races, but the gelding’s victory in the Sunland Derby in March was his first in a graded stakes race. At 60, Tohill was set to become the oldest rider in Derby history. “A gift,” is how Tohill described Wild on Ice one morning last month. He continued, “He’s well bred enough and his talent is starting to show.”

3-year-old gelding

Flipped in the paddock and broke his neck

This son of Empire Maker was promising enough to debut in Saratoga, but he didn’t live up to his promise, failing to finish higher than fifth in six starts. Code of Kings was being saddled when he became entranced by party lights at a D.J. booth, according to his trainer, and flipped once, twice and, finally, a fatal third time.

4-year-old filly

Collapsed and died on April 29 during the eighth race at Churchill Downs

This filly had won two in a row and, with more than $153,000 in earnings, had tripled her purchase price. She was the second betting choice at odds of 2-1 and had Churchill’s leading rider, Tyler Gaffalione, aboard. Parents Pride was sitting a comfortable second in the backstretch when Gaffalione suddenly pulled her up. She was vanned off the racetrack, then collapsed and died in Churchill’s backside.

5-year-old gelding

Collapsed and died on May 2 after finishing the eighth race, in which he finished last

This versatile gelding had stakes victories on grass and dirt. He made a believer out of Albin Jimenez two summers ago at Monmouth Park when the jockey rode him as a last-minute replacement. “It was a good surprise to pick up this mount,” said Jimenez. “I said, ‘Great. Let’s get the money.’” They did, earning the first-place check in the My Frenchman Stakes.

Chasing Artie was trained by Saffie Joseph Jr., as was Parents Pride. Churchill and state regulators refused to let Joseph’s colt Lord Miles race in the Derby.

“It crushes you. It knocks your confidence, it makes you doubt everything,” Joseph said of the deaths.

3-year-old filly

Was injured and fell during a May 2 race and was euthanized

This filly was bred by Willis Horton, a rancher and builder who died last year. She was trained by his longtime trainer, the Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas: “He had a great eye for a horse himself and he understood the game,” said Lukas at the time of Horton’s death last year. “He was game, and he wasn’t afraid to step up and spend money on a good horse.”

Take Charge Briana was ridden by Luis Saez, the same jockey who was on Chasing Artie.

3-year-old gelding

Broke down during the second race on Kentucky Derby day and was euthanized

Chloe’s Dream was named for the daughter of a business associate of Brook Smith, who operates the Rocket Ship Racing syndicate. Smith and his wife, Pam, are involved with the Backside Learning Center at Churchill, which offers education and wellness programs for racetrack workers and their families. Rocket Ship donates 10 percent of its winnings to the center. Smith took Chloe and her family to the paddock where he said Chloe’s Dream looked “beautiful.” When the gelding faltered coming out of the first turn, Smith said he and his party were traumatized.

“It leaves a hole in your stomach,” Smith said. He added that he and his wife were not ready to return to the racetrack. “I can’t go through it again.”

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