The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority gathered Kentucky state regulatory veterinarians, along with vets from Churchill Downs, on Tuesday to examine why 12 horses have been fatally injured at the historic racetrack in a matter of weeks and to decide whether to recommend pausing racing there.
Lisa Lazarus, the chief executive of the authority, called the “emergency veterinary summit” in Lexington, Ky., to review necropsies, toxicology reports and veterinarians’ and trainers’ notes on the deaths, seven of which preceded this month’s Kentucky Derby. The deaths have cast a pall over the Triple Crown season, the few weeks each spring when casual sports fans have heightened focus on horse racing.
In addition, the authority has asked a longtime California track superintendent, Dennis Moore, to examine the racing surfaces at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., and offer an independent analysis of the dirt and turf courses’ suitability for racing.
“I have not had a single jockey or trainer tell me that they believe the track is a factor in these fatalities,” Lazarus said. Most of the deaths occurred after horses broke down while racing.
Along with a review of the protocols Kentucky state veterinarians follow to make sure horses are fit to race, Lazarus said that vet records would be scoured for illegal or misused drugs. She said the authority will apply “very intense scrutiny from a testing standpoint to any horse that we’re concerned about” as well as increased surveillance and attention on their trainers.
The reviews of the veterinary and medication history of each horse were led by Dr. Jennifer Durenberger, the authority’s director of equine safety and welfare.
“It’s basically trying to get a whole snapshot of that horse’s history in the month leading up to the injury,” Lazarus said. “We have to turn over every leaf, look under every stone.”
She said her agency will have a recommendation from the summit by the end of the day Wednesday about whether and how Churchill should proceed with racing.
“Everyone is committed to figuring out what is happening and committed to stopping it,” Lazarus said.
Lazarus acknowledged that the authority could not force Churchill Downs to stop holding races, but it could prohibit the track from sending the broadcast of its races to other courses or internet betting sites to be wagered on. That would be costly to Churchill, which receives a percentage of those bets.
“My strong view is that if we were to make a recommendation to Churchill Downs to shut down racing that they would accept that recommendation,” Lazarus said.
The authority is flexing its muscles as troubles in horse racing are raising questions about how long America’s oldest sport can continue to have its social license renewed.
The authority was established by Congress and is overseen by the Federal Trade Commission to ensure the health and safety of horse racing’s athletes — human and equine. Its primary responsibility is to eliminate doping and abuse within thoroughbred racing.
The authority’s racetrack safety program began on July 1, 2022. Its antidoping program went into effect May 22, two days after the Bob Baffert-trained colt National Treasure won the Preakness Stakes, signaling the return of the most accomplished and controversial horse trainer in America to Triple Crown racing. The victory came after Baffert’s two-year ban from the Derby, the sport’s premier stage, because of a doping violation, and hours after another one of his horses died competing in an undercard race at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.
Earlier that week, The New York Times had revealed that Forte, last year’s 2-year-old champion and the favorite to win the 2023 Kentucky Derby until he was scratched the morning of the race, failed a post-race drug test in New York eight months earlier.
The colt, trained by Todd Pletcher, had tested positive for meloxicam, a potent nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug used to manage pain and swelling, after the Hopeful Stakes. The drug, widely prescribed to treat osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, is not approved in the United States for the treatment of racehorses in training.
New York regulators suspended Pletcher, a Hall of Fame trainer, for 10 days, fined him $1,000 and disqualified Forte.
The sport was badly rocked in 2019 after 30 horses died at Santa Anita Park outside Los Angeles in a span of six months, news that made national headlines and earned the scrutiny of California lawmakers and animal rights activists.
In response, state and racing officials strengthened regulations regarding the use of riding crops and medications for horses; education for trainers and jockeys; track safety; and recuperation policies for injured horses. Last year, 12 horses died at Santa Anita, and thoroughbred fatalities throughout California fell 54 percent from 144 in 2019 to 66 for the last fiscal year.
Asked if similar measures might be implemented not only at Churchill but nationally, Lazarus said: “Everything is on the table.”
Joe Drape has been writing about the intersection of sports, culture and money since coming to The Times in 1998. He has also pursued these lines of reporting as the author of two best-selling books. @joedrape
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