Churchill Downs implements safety, performance standards to address recent spate of horse deaths
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Horse racing’s oversight authority and Churchill Downs have each announced additional safety and health measures in the wake of 12 recent deaths since late April at the home of the Kentucky Derby.
The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) will conduct additional post-entry screening of horses to identify those at increased risk for injury. It will also direct its Integrity and Welfare Unit to collect blood and hair samples for all fatalities for use while investigating a cause.
Earlier Thursday, Churchill Downs announced it would immediately limit horses to four starts during a rolling eight-week period and impose ineligibility standards for poor performers.
HISA’s second independent analysis of Churchill Downs’ training and racing surfaces, conducted by track superintendent Dennis Moore, continues with results to be made public upon completion.
The federally-created oversight authority can recommend pausing competition if needed, CEO Lisa Lazarus said Wednesday. A release Thursday afternoon stated that “all options remain on the table” as it monitors events at the track.
Louisville-born trainer Brad Cox said he felt comfortable training at Churchill Downs and added, “I feel it’s a safe surface.”
The dual announcements came just before Churchill Downs’ spring meet resumed after several days of meetings during an emergency summit convened by HISA to examine the troubling spate of deaths. All but two deaths have been attributed to racing or training leg injuries. The other two are from unknown causes, but all are being investigated by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and HISA.
The summit included the KHRC, HISA and Churchill Downs.
HISA called the dialogue productive in its release and added that conclusions from the summit have been shared directly with key stakeholders to inform next steps.
“While no obvious or specific pattern emerged, HISA welcomes Churchill Downs’ efforts announced earlier today to minimize risk of equine fatalities,” the release added.
Additionally, HISA said equine forensics specialist Alina Vale will conduct thorough review of all necropsies performed on covered horses. Vale performed postmortem reviews as an official veterinarian for the California Horse Racing Board following a spate of fatalities at Santa Anita in 2019.
Churchill Downs’ other initiatives include pausing incentives, such as trainer start bonuses and purse payouts to every race finisher, with payouts limited to the top five finishers. Churchill Downs officials say they’ll continue talks with horsemen to determine how to allocate funds.
A release from Churchill Downs stated that California-based equine surgeon Ryan Carpenter presented trainers and veterinarians with information and tools about advanced interventions for certain injuries. Churchill Downs’ equine medical director, Will Farmer, said there was “a duty” to offer information from someone who experienced similar challenges recently in California.
He said in the release that decisions regarding the long-term well being of horses must be first and foremost. “It is imperative that all available, educated and informed options can be efficiently, confidently and thoroughly relayed to the owners.”
Cox said he did “a lot of listening” at the meeting and left it at that.
“I think Churchill is trying to dot every I and cross every T,” the trainer said during a NTRA teleconference. “It’s been a lot of stuff happening since the meet began and hopefully we’re kind of coming to the end of this.”
Churchill Downs’ ineligibility measure impacts horses losing by more than 12 lengths in five consecutive starts. They cannot race at Churchill Downs until approved by Farmer to return.
Seven horses died in the days leading up to the 149th Kentucky Derby on May 6, including two on the undercard. Five horses have died since then, including two 7-year-olds last weekend from similar leg injuries.
HISA veterinary teams reviewed information and analysis on Tuesday. Moore began a second independent analysis of Churchill Downs’ training and racing surfaces on Wednesday.