Horse racing is in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, again

The Kentucky Derby went off flawlessly, but seven deaths leading up to the race have raised concerns in the horse racing world.

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If you’ve never been to the Kentucky Derby, you really should go. It’s glorious Americana, a daylong festival of beautiful people, ridiculous hats, delicious drinks and gambling. You mix and mingle with the drunken powerful (in the stands) or the powerfully drunk (in the infield) and you’re guaranteed a memorable time, one way or another.

You can easily go the whole day reveling in excess, and think for only about two minutes about the horses that actually run the race‌.

The 149th Kentucky Derby went off magnificently late Saturday afternoon, with Mage surging from deep in the pack to win. Mage, whose odds closed at 15-1, made a whole lot of people very happy. The victory marked a joyous end to one of the darker weeks in recent Derby history.

Seven horses died in the days before the race, two of those in the hours leading up to post time on Saturday. Code of Kings, a 3-year-old gelding, died after flipping and sustaining a broken neck on April 29; the horse’s trainer said the horse may have been distracted by flashing lights from a nearby DJ booth. Two horses were euthanized during the week after suffering irrecoverable injuries while racing and practicing on the track.

Mage won a triumphant Kentucky Derby. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Mage won a triumphant Kentucky Derby. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Two more died what Churchill Downs official called “unexplained sudden deaths” after workouts, resulting in the suspension of their trainer and the removal of all that trainer’s horses from the week's future races. Then on Derby Day, with tens of thousands of fans in attendance, two more horses suffered catastrophic injuries in preliminary races and were destroyed.

“The equine fatalities leading to this year’s Kentucky Derby are a sobering reminder of the urgent need to mobilize our industry in order to explore every avenue possible and effectively minimize any avoidable risk in the sport,” Churchill Downs said in a statement, using the kind of public relations-speak that bureaucracies use when they want to keep emotion far, far away.

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The first, most obvious question is, why? Why did so many horses die? The frustrating answer is: nobody knows.

The horses died from so many different causes that Churchill Downs officials said there is “no discernible pattern detected in the injuries sustained.” Track quality, training methods, medication, illness … all are possible causes, but none covers all the deaths.

Which then leads to the second, much tougher question: Why go on? Animal rights activists have had horse racing in their sights for decades, and this week will only sharpen their arguments. Is it even possible to have a sport of horse racing while protecting the health of the horses? What’s an “acceptable” number of horse deaths?

The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission is working with the federal Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Authority to conduct investigations into the deaths. Given that there are still no national standards governing horse racing safety and medication, the likelihood that real change will result is slim at best. After 42 horses died at Santa Anita in California in 2019, momentum surged for national regulation — momentum that has since stalled after running headlong into competing political interests.

Unbelievable as it sounds to those not familiar with the horse racing industry, there are no uniform national standards for many aspects of the sport. A new law, the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, took effect on July 1, 2022, that was intended to foster safety on the track and control medication use. The safety rules include limits on the number of times a jockey can whip a horse, among other elements, but the Derby deaths are a glaring reminder that the sport cannot be completely regulated into safety.

More notable is the Antidoping and Medication Control program that was supposed to begin last summer as well. But a series of delays brought on by the Federal Trade Commission and federal judges mean the program will now begin no earlier than May 22, after this year’s Preakness.

At present, the 38 states that permit horse racing have varying regulations for pre- and post-race drug testing and penalties. The ADMC aims to standardize those … and, of course, it’s hitting walls all over the country as differing state governments and associations seek to preserve their own way of doing business. Lawsuits and decisions are flying, with no sign of compromise anywhere soon.

Horse racing enjoys its lofty designation as the Sport of Kings. But there aren’t any kings in America, and headlines like this past week from Kentucky darken horse racing’s future here, too.