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Exercise rider, horse dead after accident Saturday at Churchill Downs

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The Daily Racing Form reported Saturday that Odanis Acuna, a veteran exercise rider for Lexington trainer Kenny McPeek, died early Saturday at Churchill Downs “when the horse he was breezing before dawn broke down in both front legs.”

Churchill Downs officials said in a statement Saturday that the accident occurred at approximately 5:45 a.m. when Acuna was breezing unraced 2-year-old New York Harbor. Nearing completion of the workout, the colt and Acuna suddenly fell about a sixteenth of a mile before the finish line when New York Harbor “endured catastrophic injuries,” the statement said.

On site emergency medical technicians who arrived to treat Acuna believe he died immediately, the statement said.

“Today is a somber day,” Churchill Downs Racetrack President Kevin Flanery said in the statement. “We extend our deepest sympathy to Odanis’ family, friends, colleagues and the entire team at trainer Kenny McPeek’s barn. Our hearts are with them in this difficult time of extreme sorrow.”

Acuna was known to his racetrack friends as “Cuba,” which was his native homeland.

“Odanis was one of the hardest working guys you’d ever meet; he was working the American dream,” McPeek, who employed Acuna for nearly a decade, said in the statement.

“He galloped for me in the morning and worked for the feed company in the afternoon.”

“He was just a wonderful, wonderful person,” said Sherry Stanley, executive director of the Backside Learning Center at Churchill Downs. “His entire existence was focused on bringing his wife and three sons from Cuba to here in Kentucky. He was just about to finish the process of purchasing a home and the immigration paperwork to get them green cards.

“He was the hardest worker. I know everyone always says that about people on the backside but this guy was unbelievable. He worked as an exercise rider and went running out the gates after training every day to get on the feed trucks. He would work every day until 6 or 7 at night and always had a smile on his face. No one ever saw him angry or sad. He was just the happiest, most joyful person who was completely focused on his goal of getting his family here to Kentucky and settling down. This is just an unbelievable tragedy.”

“When he started with me he had little or nothing and he got himself pretty well setup and had been saving money,” McPeek said in the statement. “He bought himself a car and was getting ready to buy a house. He was hard at it all day, every day. We worked together a long time and he traveled with us wherever we went. He rode a lot of my best horses for years and was a guy who could handle just about any horse you put him on. He was just a good guy and loved what he was doing. I am just sickened by this tragedy.”

It was first known training accident at Churchill Downs that resulted in the death of an exercise rider in several decades, according to track officials.

Training at Churchill Downs was suspended Saturday morning shortly after the accident. A moment of silence was set to be observed at approximately 12:30 p.m. in Acuna’s honor prior to Saturday’s first race at 1 p.m.

Funeral arrangements, a memorial service and fund-raising efforts for the family are pending, Churchill Downs officials said.

McPeek could not immediately be reached Saturday morning, but he posted on Twitter: “We are all sick and saddened by the loss of such a good man in Odanis Acuna. We are working on all details to help his wife and children. There will be a Go Fund page soon.”

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