LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) has found no explanation for the unusual number of horse deaths at Churchill Downs earlier this year. However, officials said this only means more needs to be done.
Twelve horses died at the racetrack between April and May 2023, including two that were on the 149th Kentucky Derby undercard. In early June, racing was paused at Churchill Downs and the remainder of the spring-summer meet was moved to Ellis Park in Henderson.
Despite extensive investigation and analysis of the track, HISA couldn't find an explanation for the horse deaths at Churchill. Necropsies of the 12 horses found they had no obvious medical issues that led to their deaths. Drug tests for banned substances also came back clear.
The 197-page report did say an "analysis of training histories did indicate an increased risk profile for some of the horses due to the frequency and cadence of their exercise and racing schedules." However, HISA CEO Lisa Lazarus recognized that horse deaths are "almost always" made of of several factors.
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The report shows where the breakdowns happened on different surfaces and at different points on and around the track. Several injuries involved broken legs, but in most cases, the bones were often different.
"There was not one singular smoking gun that caused the spate of fatalities," she said.
FOCUS was the only one present when Churchill Downs retested the world-renowned racetrack. WHAS11's John Charlton was told there were no red flags.
HISA's report came to the same conclusion, stating surface conditions were similar to prior years. The organization said the issue of rocks being on the track has been addressed with new sifting equipment.
Dr. Susan Stover, HISA Racetrack Safety Committee Chair, added that she thinks "the rock issue has been dealt with and cannot explain the injuries that happened at Churchill."
Even though the death remains a mystery, HISA said there are pieces of the puzzle the industry can learn from moving forward. The authority said everything is on the table, including studies on breeding racehorses.
"Once we have that data and have that analysis, we can then engage in conversations about what we can do about it," Lazarus said. "This is the time where racetracks, and horsemen, and breeders, and cosigners, and sales companies -- we all have to kind of get behind real change."
Urgent need for action
Officials said the lack of explanation for the deaths emphasizes the "urgent need for further action" to prevent more deaths.
"Horse racing has reached an 'all-hands-on-deck' moment requiring more than ever a truly unified effort for the horses," HISA said, adding that everyone who participates in and benefits from horse racing must be a part of the solution.
On Tuesday, the organization announced a series of proposed reforms, some of which are mandated, aimed at improving equine safety.
Those initiatives include:
- A new data analysis effort in which HISA will work with top data analytics companies to explore critical questions facing the sport. Officials hope the analysis will provide "actionable insights into equine fatalities."
- Creating a Blue-Ribbon Committee that will work toward studying and ultimately introducing more synthetic track surface options in horse racing.
- Improved veterinary screening and diagnostic procedures including:
- Making PET scans more accessible to racetracks across the U.S.
- Conducting a research study to examine the causes of exercise-related sudden deaths.
- Further use of wearable technology as an injury detection tool.
- An examination of whether there are any other equine fitness tools worthy of investment and use.
Churchill Downs' September meet is scheduled to return to the racetrack in just a few days, on Thursday, Sept. 14. It will run through Oct. 1. The regular Fall Meet starts up at the end of October through Nov. 26.