Live racing returns to Churchill Downs amid findings into horse deaths
Churchill Downs’s September meet begins Thursday with new safety measures in place. A recent investigation offered no clear pattern on what caused a dozen horse deaths at the grounds within a month this past spring.
Churchill Downs’ namesake Louisville track hasn’t hosted horse racing since the company suspended events there in early June.
Churchill Downs moved the rest of its spring and summer races to Ellis Park while safety measures at Churchill Downs were reviewed by the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority. The group, which was established by Congress in 2020 to regulate thoroughbred welfare, recommended suspending races at the track.
One horse was euthanized at the Henderson course in late June after an injury during a race.
Churchill Downs now says it’s implemented changes intended to improve horse safety. But a federally-created oversight group says there’s more work to do at racetracks across the country.
On Tuesday, HISA released a report sharing its findings into the Churchill Downs deaths and offering industry-wide recommendations. It said its investigation didn’t find a clear link among the deaths and didn’t uncover any changes with the dirt track’s surface compared to previous data.
The report also noted that HISA hasn’t received consistent details surrounding horse injuries and fatalities in many of its jurisdictions, including Kentucky, and recommended the Kentucky Horsing Race Commission create mortality reviews for horse training deaths.
HISA CEO Lisa Lazarus said during a press conference that safety in the sport needs to improve.
“Horses dying is not OK, no one in the industry thinks it’s OK. And we are going to do better as an industry,” Lazarus said.
Along with its findings, the group detailed a new strategic response plan to address and prevent racehorse deaths nationally.
The plan includes considering whether to expand the use of synthetic surface tracks, which HISA said may be safer than dirt and turf, and exploring how to widen the availability of PET scans to find musculoskeletal issues in horses before serious injuries happen.
It also recommends increasing how long to rest horses who receive corticosteroid injections to their fetlock joints, which can relieve pain and inflammation near their hooves. HISA suggests barring them for 14 days from training and 30 days from racing. The current standards are 7 days off of training and 14 days off of racing.
That change aims to prevent overexertion and injury and would closely align with an expired California rule.
Lazarus said she expects the Federal Trade Commission, which oversees HISA, will approve the proposed change soon.
Susan Stover, a University of California-Davis horse veterinarian who chairs HISA’s Racetrack Safety Committee, said at the press conference that preventing injuries goes beyond the course itself.
“We recognize that the training surfaces [are] an important risk factor. But we also recognize that these injuries are a result of fatigue, meaning they develop over time and ultimately can become a catastrophic injury,” Stover said.
Lazarus said that her group doesn’t investigate tracks based on the number of horse deaths. Their interest is in whether the deaths can be explained.
“It really is a question of looking at what is transpiring… When it's a mystery, that's when you have to, I think, react,” she said.
The racehorse deaths at Churchill Downs occurred in April and May around the time of the Kentucky Derby.
In late July, Churchill Downs announced its plan to resume live racing in Louisville, saying in a press release that it took a “comprehensive evaluation of existing safety protocols and a thorough assessment of industry best practices.”
The company said changes would include increasing track surface testing, despite not finding anything wrong with it, as well as adding veterinary resources to prevent injuries and forming a safety committee “to candidly discuss observations and concerns.”
Churchill Downs Racetrack spokesperson Darren Rogers said Wednesday those changes were in place.
"We appreciate the diligent investigation and analysis from the team at HISA. We have already implemented several of the recommendations listed in the report as well as additional internal key safety enhancements in time for the opening of our September Meet,” the company said in a statement provided by Rogers.
HISA said in its report that recommendations to Churchill Downs involved racecourse safety improvements and testing.