A year later, racing is still trying to make sense of Churchill Downs deaths

Last year’s Kentucky Derby Day at Churchill Downs saw 143 horses enter the starting gate. Most will remember Mage, who crossed the finish line first in the world’s most famous race. But forgotten by all who didn’t known them were Chloe’s Dream and Freezing Point, who never made it to the finish line, who never made it back to their stall, who were euthanized after suffering life-ending injuries and were the sixth and seventh fatalities in 10 days.

Racing continued at the storied track until the death count reached 12 and racing ceased at Churchill Downs on June 4, when it was moved to nearby Ellis Park for the remainder of the meeting. The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) issued a 197-page report about the fatalities on Sept. 12. It was filled with charts and graphs and all the things they teach in presentation school. What it didn’t have was a singular reason for the rash of deaths.

“It’s not like we didn’t uncover the causes,” said Lisa Lazarus, who runs HISA. “It’s that there wasn’t one singular factor that caused each of the fatalities. But we did learn a whole lot from the investigation and the data we’ve been collecting. With that we’ve been working very closely with Churchill Downs to enhance what was already a very rigorous safety protocol process.”

This year has been decidedly different. There have been no reported fatalities as of Tuesday. Whether it is by increased scrutiny, accident or happenstance, it paints the 150th running of the race in a much more favorable light.

Last year’s spring meeting was the biggest crisis the sport has faced since 2019, when 36 horses died at Santa Anita Park. The track was closed for three weeks, and an investigation also found no singular cause.

Dr. Will Farmer is the equine medical director for all tracks owned by Churchill Downs Inc. He also worked for the California Horse Racing Board in 2019.

“These were two very different situations,” Farmer said. “In 2019 at Santa Anita we had some significant weather, so we had definite factors to be looked at in regard to surface management and weather-related training. It was very different than what we saw at Churchill last year. The factors that were identified with Santa Anita were not in play at Churchill.”

Sometimes the deaths just happen in clusters and no one seems to know why. In fact, California had 11 fewer racing deaths and 14 fewer training deaths in 2019 than it did in 2018, but they didn’t all happen at the same time.

Was a cluster the case at Churchill Downs last year or Santa Anita in 2019?

“We have seen these somewhat clusters that seemingly don’t have a lot of links between them,” Farmer said. “They are incredible challenges for us as a regulator and a scientist who likes to have answers. We want to have cause and effect. We want to explain why something happened.

“But you can’t wait for time to tell you [if this is a statistical anomaly]. In the heat of the moment, you can’t just sit and wait, you have to be proactive. You can’t say, ‘We’re hopeful that in two months this goes away.’ That’s not an acceptable response. We have a responsibility to the horses. We want to make sure we are doing everything we can to make sure when those racehorses go to the race track that surface management and veterinary protocols are followed.”

There is little doubt that there is no one in racing who likes the talk about fatalities. You hear the same platitudes about “zero” as the goal, unattainable as it might be. As long as there is racing, there will be deaths.

Yet racing, at times, plays its fatality numbers as if it were a game of three-card monte. Look here. No, look there.

It points to the Equine Injury Database, run by the Jockey Club, as its standard of measurement of how well — or poorly — the industry is doing. But it is tragically flawed in that it doesn’t track injuries, as its name suggests, but fatalities, and not all fatalities. It counts only racing deaths, not those in training or in the barn area from a circumstance related to racing.

It would be like counting either in-person ballots or mail-in ballots but not both.

State regulatory agencies in California and New York have publicly available websites that recognize all fatalities. Kentucky has no such veneer of transparency. In fact, tracks owned by Churchill Downs do not allow data submitted to the Equine Injury Database to be made public.

“The fatality rates for all our racetracks are made public through our regulator at the close of each meet,” said Tonya Abeln, vice president of communications for Churchill Downs Inc. “That has always been our method of public disclosure. Moving forward, it is our understanding that HISA will make public fatality statistics by track, which will be a secondary method for gathering that information.”

HISA told everyone it would make the individual fatality rates public this year but then, at the urging of its board, decided it would start next year just to give the tracks more notice it would happen even though this has been the plan since HISA was created in 2020.

Using the incomplete EID methodology, the national average last year was 1.32 deaths for every 1,000 starts. The Times calculated the number for last year’s spring meet at Churchill at 5.39. In 2019, Santa Anita peaked at 3.01. Last year it was 0.64, but that doesn’t take into account the seven musculo-skeletal training deaths or five sudden deaths while training.

Farmer points to “wearables” as something he hopes can make a difference. They use biometric sensor technology in an attempt to pick up tiny irregularities that can lead to early detection of a problem in a horse.

“I won’t say that it’s new because we had it last year and now we know more,” Farmer said about how it works. “We’re able to learn from the data we are getting, [and it’s helpful] mostly for the horsemen and attending veterinarians. … The computer algorithms help us be more accurate. That’s probably the big area we are most excited about.”

HISA also is offering a data-based model that may one day be used nationally.

“We’ve been able to identify what we believe are 44 risk factors and created a model that essentially looks at every race card and analyzes that race card and gives each horse a numerical risk factor,” Lazarus said.

HISA would not provide The Times with the complete list, saying that it is in beta testing. However, Lazarus has spoken about things such as a horse’s previous layoffs, multiple claims, multiple intra-articular injections, class drops and history on the veterinarian’s list.

Horse racing can little afford any more unwanted attention over horse deaths. With the Churchill Downs meeting just getting underway, so far, so good.

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