Nearly a year after the first fatal injury at America’s most famous horse race, Churchill Downs announced this week it is beefing up safety requirements ahead of this year’s Kentucky Derby.
The company is enacting more than 20 changes, ranging from enhanced drug testing to limits on whips and racing ages, in time for the start of the spring meet at its signature track in Louisville, Ky. Other Churchill-owned tracks, including Arlington Park in Arlington Heights, Ill.; Calder Race Course in Miami Gardens, Fla.; and Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots in New Orleans, will follow by next year.
While some of the changes, such as testing for steroids, were already required under new state racing regulations, Churchill is taking the lead on other elements. For example, the dirt track at Churchill Downs will be subjected to rigorous performance testing using a robotic hoof device that aims to simulate the force and speed of a horse.
“We think we’ve always had one of the safest racetracks in the country, but we think these initiatives will make us even safer,” said Jim Gates, general manager at Churchill Downs racetrack.
Racehorse safety was thrust into the national spotlight after the filly Eight Belles finished second in last year’s Derby, only to pull up lame as she jogged past the finish line. An autopsy showed compound fractures in both front legs, and the horse had to be euthanized on the track.
Although Eight Belles’ trainer Larry Jones has long argued it was a fluke accident that had nothing to do with the racing surface, he praised Churchill for the changes and expressed satisfaction the death of one of his most beloved pupils may have helped make the sport safer.
“If it was to draw attention and make the game a better game, if that’s why the good lord had her do it, I guess that’s a good thing,” Jones said.
With speculation swirling that the muscular filly may have been drugged up prior to the race, Jones insisted on a full autopsy to prove she wasn’t. The tests verified his claims, and one of Churchill’s new requirements is a mandatory, independent autopsy any time a horse dies through racing or training at the track.
Bob Evans, president of Churchill Downs Inc., said historical records show Eight Belles has been the only catastrophic injury among the 1,710 horses that competed in the 134 runnings of the Kentucky Derby.
But while the Derby is the signature event, breakdowns during lesser-known races are common. A review by The Associated Press last year found fatal injuries were practically a daily occurrence, with more than 5,000 breakdowns reported — and countless others not reported — between 2003 and 2007 at the nation’s thoroughbred tracks.
Alex Waldrop, president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, praised the actions by Churchill Downs as an “unprecedented level of commitment.”
Some of the changes were already included for the Derby and other graded stakes races but are now, for the first time, also being implemented at lesser events.
The new “supertesting” procedure falls into that category. While the Derby already had it in place a year ago, now winning horses at every Churchill race will be tested for more than 100 illegal, performance-enhancing drugs — about double what previous tests would have detected.
Andy Schweigardt, director of industry relations and development for the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, said the requirement is exactly what the organization has been pushing all tracks to adopt. Many tracks have been reluctant, based on costs sometimes topping $250 for a single test, but Schweigardt said he is hopeful Churchill’s lead will provide an example for the industry.
And Churchill also is leaving open the possibility of future testing beyond what is now available with a measure calling for the freezing and storage of equine blood and urine samples.
Other noticeable safety changes that will be on display for the spring meet include:
A ban on unsafe horseshoes, including a limit on the length of front “toe grabs” that critics say act as a cleat and can cause injuries.
Mandatory use of safety vests and helmets by jockeys, exercise riders and other on-track personnel.
Extra foam padding on the starting gates, and an emergency guard rail.
Limits on whipping procedures, and a ban on high-impact riding crops.
10-horse field limits for some races, although no immediate plans to change the maximum 20 starters for the Derby.
A ban on racing for any horse younger than 24 months old.
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