August 18, 2022

‘Racetrack community is heartbroken’ following death of exercise rider Acuna

Odanis Acuna passed away in a tragic training accident at Churchill Downs on November 10, 2018 (c) Churchill Downs/Coady Photography

Odanis Acuna, a veteran exercise rider for trainer Kenny McPeek, died early Saturday morning during a training accident at Churchill Downs, and friends remembered the 42-year-old affectionately known around the backstretch as “Cuba.”

Acuna was breezing unraced two-year-old New York Harbor at approximately 5:45 a.m. (ET) when, nearing completion of the workout, the colt suffered catastrophic injuries. Both New York Harbor and Acuna suddenly fell about a sixteenth of a mile before the finish line. Onsite emergency medical technicians who arrived on the scene to treat Acuna believe he died instantly.

“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,” Churchill Downs Racetrack President Kevin Flanery said.

“Odanis was one of the hardest working guys you’d ever meet; he was working the American dream,” said McPeek, who employed Acuna for nearly a decade. “He galloped for me in the morning and worked for the feed company in the afternoon.

“When he started with me he had little or nothing and he got himself pretty well setup and had been saving money,” McPeek continued. “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.”

McPeek set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for Acuna’s funeral expenses and to help out his wife and three children.

“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.”

“It’s just so tragic. He was with my string of horses for the last four years so I got to know him pretty well. He was always working hard for his wife and sons back in Cuba. My heart goes out to his family and friends,” said Jeff Hiles, an assistant trainer to McPeek.

“It’s just very tough to deal with. We’re all still hurting. He was a great man,” agreed Greg Geier, another assistant to McPeek.

“Rest in peace my great friend. Your wife, children and all of your friends will always be proud of you,” said Edgar Cano, a fellow exercise rider.

“Cuba’s smile would’ve brought a smile to anyone when they would talk to him or just say hello. I’m praying for his family and loved ones. Our racetrack community is heartbroken,” Zeke Castro (exercise rider

“Odanis Acuna was taken from us too soon,” trainer John Ortiz said. “I’ve seen firsthand how hard this man worked for his family at Churchill Downs and Oaklawn. It’s a tragic loss of a friend, father, husband and colleague. His smile will be missed every morning.”

“He was always so happy. I knew him really well when I worked for Kenny (McPeek). He wanted the best for his wife and kids. He was always working hard,” added Raul Vizcarrondo, a freelance exercise rider and valet.

Funeral arrangements and a memorial service for Acuna are pending.