Horse deaths force Churchill Downs to improve track maintenance, veterinary resources

Symbolic statue: One of the attractions at Churchill Downs is the statue of Barbaro, winner of the 2006 Kentucky Derby. Barbaro was injured in his next race, the Preakness Stakes, and later euthanized. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

Churchill Downs will implement safety measures for its September meet including new track surface maintenance equipment and additional monitoring and equine care following 12 horse deaths before and after the Kentucky Derby that spurred suspension of the Louisville track’s spring meet.

Racing is scheduled to resume Sept. 14 and run through Oct. 1 at the historic track, which paused racing operations on June 7 to conduct an internal safety review following the spate of horse deaths from racing or training injuries. Seven died in the days leading up to the 149th Derby on May 6, including two in races preceding the premier event.

The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority recommended suspending the remainder of the meet, which moved to Ellis Park in western Kentucky. Training continued at Churchill Downs during the investigation, and a release on Monday stated that while industry experts found no issues with the racing surfaces, the track invested in new maintenance equipment. Along with infrastructure upgrades, it will also double the frequency of surface testing.

Churchill Downs Inc. CEO Bill Carstanjen said in the release that the track’s commitment to safety “remains paramount” and added, “our participants, fans and the public can be assured that we will continue to investigate, evaluate and improve upon every policy and protocol.”

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The announcement comes days after Carstanjen said in an earnings call with CDI investors that racing would resume this fall with no changes, calling the deaths “a series of unfortunate circumstances.”

Churchill Downs veterinarians will receive additional resources for specialized horse care and to assist in pre-race inspections and entry screening, the release added. The track will work with HISA and industry experts to predict at-risk horses through advanced analytic techniques.

A safety management committee including horsemen, track employees and veterinarians will also be created.