A month ago, I wrote about my astonishment that as many as seven horses that had had to be euthanized in the few days in the run up to the Kentucky Derby.
It turns out that the situation was even worse than that and that 12 horses had died there since April 27. As a result, yesterday it was announced that the location has suspended all events for about a month pending an investigation.
After a series of concurrent investigations by Churchill Downs, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, “no single factor has been identified as a potential cause and no discernable pattern has been detected to link the fatalities,” according to a statement from the track. The racetrack’s surface has also been deemed “consistent with prior measurements” from previous years and thus “has not raised concerns.”
A day before Churchill Downs announced it would suspend racing operations, the famed track and HISA introduced a series of new safety measures. Those changes include the Horseracing Integrity and Welfare Unit collecting blood and hair samples for all fatalities involving covered horses and Churchill Downs restricting horses to four starts over a rolling eight-week period. Churchill Downs also added “ineligibility standards for poor performance,” so horses that lose a race by more than 12 lengths in five consecutive starts will be barred from competing again until approved by the equine medical director.
A key issue is whether this is due to something local or whether it is endemic to thoroughbred racing. The Kentucky Derby is a very high profile event and so it may be that deaths occur regularly elsewhere but do not receive the same amount of publicity.
The organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) says that the very nature of horse racing is what leads to deaths. The numbers it provides are staggering.
They weigh at least 1,000 pounds, have legs that are supported by ankles the size of a human’s, and are forced to run around dirt tracks at speeds of more than 30 miles per hour while carrying people on their backs. Racehorses are the victims of a multibillion-dollar industry that is rife with drug abuse, injuries, and race fixing, and many horses’ careers end in slaughterhouses. A New York Daily News reporter remarked, “The thoroughbred race horse is a genetic mistake. It runs too fast, its frame is too large, and its legs are far too small. As long as mankind demands that it run at high speeds under stressful conditions, horses will die at racetracks.”
Horses begin training or are already racing when their skeletal systems are still growing and are unprepared to handle the pressures of running on a hard track at high speeds. Improved medical treatment and technological advancements have done little to remedy the plight of the racehorse. Between 700 and 800 racehorses are injured and die every year, with a national average of about two breakdowns for every 1,000 starts. According to The Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database, nearly 10 horses died every week at American racetracks in 2018. At Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California, 37 horses died within a year, causing the Los Angeles District Attorney to conduct the first-ever criminal investigation into the culpability of trainers and veterinarians who medicate horses for soreness and injury and then put them on the track. Strained tendons or hairline fractures can be tough for veterinarians to diagnose, and the damage may go from minor to irreversible at the next race or workout. Horses do not handle surgery well, as they tend to be disoriented when coming out of anesthesia, and they may fight casts or slings, possibly causing further injury. Many are euthanized in order to save the owners further veterinary fees and other expenses for horses who will never race again.
The patrons of horse racing, the people who own horses and the tracks on which they run, are very wealthy people and have a lot of political clout so it will be every difficult to make changes to protect the well-being of horses. But it seems like such changes are long overdue.