#US RACING: Deaths At Kentucky Derby Bring Changes


Memories are made at the Kentucky Derby, most of them good. Whether cashing a winning ticket, sipping mint juleps or marvelling at the horses, crowds pack Churchill Downs to experience a bucket list sporting event.

Many left last year in tears, anger and questioning the safety of the sport after 12 horses died at the historic track in the days surrounding the race, including two on Derby day when racing enjoys its biggest attendance and highest TV ratings of the year.

"You can't ever be too safe when it comes to our sport," two-time Derby-winning jockey Mike Smith said.

Deaths occurred at other major racing venues last year, too, in what become a tragic theme for the sport.

The number of deaths in the United States increased slightly in 2023 from the year before, according to data tracked by the Equine Injury Database and reported by HISA. HISA said there were 1.32 deaths per 1,000 starts last year, up from 1.25 the previous year. The number at the 50 HISA-accredited tracks was 1.23 per 1,000, compared with 1.63 at others across the country.

"We're encouraged by that progress," said Lisa Lazarus, CEO of HISA, "but we certainly have a whole lot more work to do."

A review of 14 horse deaths at Saratoga in upstate New York last summer found no definitive cause for why they happened, although heavy rainfall could have contributed.

Investigations by Churchill Downs and the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) — the sport's new governing body — didn't identify one common cause for the deaths around the Derby.

"When we say that there's not one singular factor that caused the breakdowns, it doesn't mean that we don't know what the risk factors are that contribute to breakdowns," Lazarus said. "Those are things we've been working on very hard."

The deaths prompted Churchill Downs to make several changes to its safety program ahead of the 150th Derby on Saturday.

The track upgraded equipment used to harrow and grade the dirt surface, with increased testing to measure safety and consistency. The cushion is measured in spots around the track and moisture content is checked throughout racing days to decide the watering schedule.

"The track is a lot different than it was. It's got more sand in it now, it's got more base, more cushion," said 88-year-old Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who saddles Just Steel in the Derby. "It's quite a bit deeper. Horses are getting over it good."

Churchill Downs added an equine safety and integrity veterinarian to help enforce its rules. Fifteen vets from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission joined the track's vet team to observe horses this week before, during and after training and in their stalls after they arrive.

A new safety management committee comprised of trainers, exercise riders, jockeys, track management and vets meet weekly to discuss concerns and provide feedback on areas for improvement.

All horses racing at Churchill Downs wear StrideSAFE biometric sensors that detect changes in their gaits to help spot inconsistencies or early signs of a potential developing injury. The track installed a PET unit for diagnostic imaging, only the second such machine permanently located at a U.S. racetrack.

Realizing the effect last year's deaths had on the public, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association has launched a national advertising campaign called "Safety Runs First" to explain what the industry is doing to improve equine safety.


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