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Report Finds No Clear Reason for Horse Deaths at Churchill Downs

An investigation by the authority overseeing horse racing safety could not pinpoint why a dozen horses died at Churchill Downs in the days surrounding the Kentucky Derby, but a report called for racetracks to be more diligent about surface management, urged veterinarians and regulators to keep better medical records and cautioned trainers to not push their horses too hard.

The recommendations by the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority were made in a report released Tuesday that examined the deaths of 12 horses — two on Kentucky Derby Day. In June, Churchill Downs suspended its spring meet to make way for the authority to investigate the deaths.

The report comes after the recently concluded Saratoga summer meet, at which there were 12 horse fatalities — eight while racing — and again left the sport struggling to reassure the public that racing is safe for its human and equine athletes.

“No one entity or issue can on its own guarantee a meaningful reduction in equine injuries,” the authority’s report said. The authority, overseen by the Federal Trade Commission, was created by Congress to ensure fairness and safety in the sport. “Horse racing has reached an ‘all hands-on deck’ moment requiring more than ever a truly unified effort for the horses.”

Dennis Moore, a longtime California track superintendent and racetrack surface expert, said there was no data that suggested the dirt or turf tracks at Churchill Downs were responsible for the injuries. The report acknowledges that some trainers complained of rocks on the racetrack. Moore recommended that new tractors and harrows with better screening equipment be employed. That equipment is in place for Churchill’s fall meeting, which opens Thursday.

Necropsies and toxicology screens did not find any banned substances or the misuse or overuse of legal medications in the 12 horses. The trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. was suspended by Churchill Downs in the days before the Derby after two of his horses collapsed after racing. The racetrack subsequently rescinded the suspension.

The report clears Joseph and said the trainer provided comprehensive medical records.

The report said Kentucky regulators, as well as the industry at large, need to update their policies, collect more data and report it in a timelier manner to “fully harness its predictive value for mitigating injury risks and informing rulemaking.” In Kentucky, for example, necropsies are performed only on horses that are fatally injured in races. Horses that die during training are not examined. The report calls for necropsies in all deaths.

And California’s Veterinary Medical Board recently placed a veterinarian on probation for four years for prescribing drugs without performing exams and creating incomplete records. The veterinarian, Dr. Vincent Baker, has treated horses trained by Bob Baffert, including Medina Spirit, the horse that won the 2021 Kentucky Derby but was disqualified after testing positive for a prohibited substance.

Dr. Susan Stover, who heads the authority’s safety committee, studied the training regimen of the horses that died and compared them to a control group of similar ages. She found that they had more races per year in their careers than the control group and endured more high-speed work. Both factors lead to “repetitive, overuse (fatigue) injuries in racehorses.”

Stover wrote that frequent hard exercise without time for recovery contributes to stress fractures that “predispose horses to catastrophic injuries.”

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