Aug 15, 2023

Churchill Downs Moves to Keep Unsound Horses Off the Track


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After the deaths of a dozen thoroughbreds at the Louisville, Ky., track, officials are changing policies that may have incentivized trainers to race vulnerable horses.

By Joe Drape

Churchill Downs, under scrutiny after 12 horses suffered fatal injuries in the past five weeks, on Thursday put in place measures meant to discourage trainers from running unsound horses.

The home of the Kentucky Derby will no longer offer incentives to trainers who start horses in its races or pay purse money for first place through last place, according to a statement from the company. Payouts instead will be limited to the top five finishers.

Horses also will be allowed only four starts during a rolling eight-week period and horses that are beaten by more than 12 lengths in five consecutive starts will be ineligible to race until the equine medical director approves their return to racing.

The changes suggest Churchill believes its bonus policies, which were intended to provide fuller fields for the betting public, may have affected the decision making of horsemen.

On Saturday, for example, a 7-year-old mare named Kimberley Dream was making her 61st start in a $40,000 claiming race with only five starters. She had not been competitive in her five most recent starts, losing by margins of 19 to 33 lengths. Kimberley Dream broke down in the upper stretch and was vanned off and euthanized.

Under the new rules, which are effective immediately, the mare would have been ineligible to enter the starting gate. The horse was owned and trained by Freddie D. Winston. He could not be reached for immediate comment.

The measures come after an emergency summit of veterinarians in Lexington, Ky., which was called by the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority to examine the spate of horse deaths — two of which occurred on the undercard of the Kentucky Derby on May 6. The deaths have cast a pall over the Triple Crown season, the few weeks each spring when casual sports fans have a heightened focus on horse racing.

Dr. Jennifer Durenberger, the authority's director of equine safety and welfare, met with veterinarians from Churchill Downs and the state of Kentucky to review necropsies, toxicology reports and veterinarians’ and trainers’ notes on the deaths.

On Thursday, shortly after the first race was run on Churchill's twilight card, the authority said that beginning on Saturday Dr. Durenberger would conduct an additional layer of post-entry screening to identify horses that might be at increased risk for injury. The review would include examining past performances and horses with more than 60 days without a timed workout or race, as well their medical histories for the last 30 days.

On Wednesday, Dennis Moore, a longtime California track superintendent, examined the racing surfaces at Churchill Downs and offered an independent analysis of the dirt and turf courses’ suitability for racing. That review is ongoing, according to the authority, and his findings will be made public once it is concluded.

On Tuesday, Lisa Lazarus, the chief executive of the authority, said she was weighing whether to recommend to Churchill officials that they suspend racing to allow for further investigation. Lazarus was not available for comment.

Kentucky-based trainers and veterinarians also met on Thursday with Dr. Ryan Carpenter, an equine surgeon from California who briefed them on advanced interventions that could be considered for certain injuries.

"We feel a duty to provide the latest information on surgical interventions from an expert who experienced the challenges in California a few years ago that we currently face today," said Dr. Will Farmer, the equine medical director for Churchill Downs Incorporated. "Any decision must be made first and foremost with the long-term well-being of the horse in mind."

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