Churchill Downs ran Saturday’s Kentucky Derby in the shadow of seven horse fatalities at the course – including two that occurred in undercard races.
Every horse death on the racetrack, be it in a race or in training, is one too many. When they perform in droves, as they did at Churchill Downs last week, many wonder how this can happen and why they are even running horses for sport these days.
Of course, the death toll made Mage’s win in the 149th Kentucky Derby somewhat bittersweet. Attached to most of the mainstream headlines about Mage’s victory were notes about the rash of horse deaths at Churchill Downs. A little unfair, yes, but also inevitable.
Horses are blessed to be among the fastest creatures on earth; Thoroughbreds can sometimes reach 40 miles per hour at the peak of their speed. Yet these majestic beasts walk on legs and hooves that are incredibly fragile, and a serious fracture of a leg can (and often does) prove fatal.
The Jockey Club notes that the horse mortality rate in American Thoroughbreds today is 1.25 per 1,000 starts – that’s 0.0125% of the time. Again, while a horse death is one too many, the half-glass side of that number is that 99.875% of the time, these animals will race, survive, and live long, healthy lives.
Statistics do not ease the pain of those times when a horse has a fatal collapse, especially on a major racing stage such as one of the Triple Crown race days or the Breeders’ Cup.
Perhaps the worst moment was Barbaro at the 2006 Preakness Stakes. The dominant winner of the Kentucky Derby suffered a broken bone in the early stages of the Preakness and was pulled up to the horror of the Pimlico crowd and millions of other fans around the world.
His owners – H. Roy and Gretchen Jackson of Lael Stables – made valiant efforts to save him when in years past they could have easily euthanized the injured stallion. Instead, they fought to save his life. Barbaro’s broken leg healed, but while on the road to recovery, he contracted the hoof infection known as laminitis – which was eventually fatal.
Safer surfaces, fight against doping, fewer starts
Despite calls from PETA and other animal rights groups to abolish the sport, the horseracing industry has in many ways taken a turn for the better in the 17 years since Barbaro’s collapse. With an entire multi-billion dollar industry at stake, it had no choice but to move forward.
Racetracks across America have installed synthetic surfaces such as Polytrack or Tapeta to help reduce the amount of shock a horse absorbs in full flight. The New York Racing Association will install one such synthetic track as part of its upcoming track renovation at Belmont Park, which will provide another, safer, year-round racing surface in all weather conditions.
The recently formed Federal Agency for Horse Racing Integrity and Safety is also working to combat equine doping by restricting and eliminating the use of drugs that put racehorse health at greater and deadlier risk.
Racetracks have also acted quickly to iron out problems or scrap race maps altogether out of caution. The Stronach Group and 1/ST Racing quickly temporarily suspended racing in 2019 at Santa Anita Park and April at Laurel Park following a series of horse fatalities. They investigated and made the necessary safety improvements to the track before deciding to reopen it.
Horse trainers and owners don’t do them that often either. The best Thoroughbreds in America run a few times each year; Last year’s Horse of the Year, Flightline, ran and won just three times: the Metropolitan Mile at Belmont Park, the Pacific Classic at Del Mar, and the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland. All three starts were spectacular.
Yet there are too many ruthless owners and trainers in the industry who only think about dollar signs and not the welfare of their horses. They will drug their horses or try to race them if they are unfit.
For example, trainer Bob Baffert, who led American Pharoah and Justify to Triple Crown victories, was subsequently arrested after his 2021 Kentucky Derby winner, Medina Spirt, tested positive for a banned substance. Medina Spirit was disqualified as a derby winner and Baffert was banned from Churchill Downs for two years.
There’s no bigger name in horse racing today than Baffert, and yet even he couldn’t get away with violating safety protocols. The fact remains, however, that there will be other trainers and owners who will be caught cheating – because in sports there will always be someone trying to gain an advantage over their competitors, either by bending or breaking the rules.
More triumph than tragedy
Therefore, it is important in this moment to have a perspective. Yes, there have been many tragedies in horse racing just as there have been tragedies in other sports. But these moments far outweigh the moments of fame and goodwill.
We’ve just seen that in the last 17 years with American Pharoah, the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years; Zenyatta, the first mare to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2009; Rachel Alexandra, the super filly who won the Preakness and Woodward Stakes that same year; Flightline, whose raw speed was compared to the great Secretariat last year; and Cody’s Wish, the world champion milensport whose bond with a boy with a life-threatening disability is one of the most inspirational sports stories of the last two years.
Even the result of this year’s Kentucky Derby was inspiring given the tragic loss of seven horses the previous week. Mage gave his Venezuelan trainer Gustavo Delgado a big win; and his driver Javier Castellano, who won his first Kentucky Derby after 18 failed starts.
But as long as groups of horses die on the track, bad press and sentiment will continue to blanket horse racing in America. So it behooves the horse racing industry to keep changing for the better and safer.
The mortality rate will never go to zero, but getting it as close to zero as possible will allow the Sport of Kings to thrive for centuries to come.