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Churchill Downs temporarily suspends racing following a dozen horse deaths

 Front of Churchill Downs
Wikimedia Commons

Churchill Downs will move horse races to Ellis Park starting June 10, according to track officials. The decision follows a series of high profile horse racing deaths.

Churchill Downs will move the remainder of its spring meet to Ellis Park, in Henderson, Kentucky, beginning June 10. Churchill Downs acquired Ellis Park last year. The move will last until July 3.

Part of the reason for the relocation is to make sure the track's surface itself hasn't played a role in injuring horses.

Churchill Downs released a statement Friday afternoon saying results from testing of the track have “concluded that the surface is consistent with prior measurements” in past years. During the relocation, officials will “conduct a top-to-bottom review of all safety and surface protocols and integrity measures in collaboration and consultation with nationwide experts,” as recommended by the Horseracing Safety and Integrity Authority.

“What has happened at our track is deeply upsetting and absolutely unacceptable,” Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen said in the statement. “Despite our best efforts to identify a cause for the recent horse injuries, and though no issues have been linked to our racing surfaces or environment at Churchill Downs, we need to take more time to conduct a top-to-bottom review of all of the details and circumstances so that we can further strengthen our surface, safety and integrity protocols.”

The Horseracing Safety and Integrity Authority and the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission said they were investigating Churchill Downs because 12 horses have died at the track since late April. The safety authority called an emergency summit Tuesday to discuss potential interventions and announced additional safety measures going forward at the track.

Churchill Downs also put several new safety measures in place on Thursday, including no longer incentivizing trainers and horse owners just for starting or finishing a race and restricting the number of races each horse can run. An equine surgeon also spoke to trainers and owners on surgical interventions other than euthanasia, if in the best interest of the horse.

Five horses died from injuries they sustained at Churchill Downs in the lead-up to the Kentucky Derby, two died on the day of Derby, and five have died since. The majority of the horses were euthanized after sustaining severe injuries during their races.

A video that was widely shared by the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, showed the injury that would prove fatal to one of the horses, Lost in Limbo, bringing yet more attention to the track.

According to the Jockey Club, more than 7,200 thoroughbreds have died nationwide due to race injuries between 2009 and 2021. In 2022, about 1.25 horses died out of every 1,000 starts.

So far this season, Churchill Downs has hosted roughly 206 races as of Friday, according to the track's online calendar. With an average of eight horses running in each race, that’s just over 1,600 starts since late April. Of the 12 horses that have died this season, 10 succumbed due to injuries sustained during racing.

Rogers said in an earlier statement that the statistic is “highly unusual.” All of the horses have been taken to the University of Kentucky Veterinary Diagnostics Lab for necropsies and the safety authority said their own equine specialist would also be overseeing the necropsies. Rogers said they are also working with the Jockey Club to review the deaths of each horse to try and find a pattern.

“We have been rigorously working since the opening of the meet to understand what has led to this spike and have yet to find a conclusive discernible pattern as we await the findings of ongoing investigations into those injuries and fatalities,” Rogers said in the statement.

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Lexington, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.

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