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What's Going On Here: Looking for Reasons at Churchill

No easy answers but data, history suggest some areas worth reviewing.

A veterinarian at Churchill Downs assesses horses in the paddock on Derby Day

A veterinarian at Churchill Downs assesses horses in the paddock on Derby Day

Anne M. Eberhardt

We would like to tell you that after putting details into a spreadsheet on the dozen equine fatalities that occurred at Churchill Downs April 27-May 27 a number or two jumped off the page to reveal a hidden cause of these incidents that can readily be addressed.

Unfortunately that was not the case for this cluster of equine fatalities. From where we're sitting it appears this is going to require a deeper dive by experts in the many areas of the multi-factorial causes that have been linked to equine deaths in Thoroughbred racing.

The good news is that available data is in place like no time in the sport's history as experts look for problems that can be addressed going forward. In terms of expertise, top veterinarians from the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, Churchill Downs, and the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission met May 30 to examine the problem and respected track superintendent Dennis Moore reviewed Churchill's surfaces May 31, which followed a review by Mick Peterson. The Jockey Club's Equine Injury Database as well as regulatory data, in this case from the KHRC and HISA, should provide some clues on where to focus attention. 

After looking over readily available data and trends we found no obvious connection to explain the equine fatalities, but there are a few areas where further review appears to be in order. We're not saying these are causes, only items that caught our eye as worthy of more study as possible contributors to at least some of the equine safety problems.

A Run of Safe Years Ends
Churchill Downs has posted relatively safe meetings for several years in a row. Looking at KHRC monthly numbers, Churchill has seen a total of four equine fatalities in May in the combined years of 2019-2022 (one a year). This May, the track saw nine. Those nine equine fatalities in May are the most in the month for more than 10 years. In 2012 Churchill also saw nine horses die in May—all linked to catastrophic breakdowns. (At least seven of the equine fatalities are linked to breakdowns this May.) 

With that in mind, it seems reasonable to look back to 2012 and see if there were any similar weather patterns or other factors that may have impacted the dirt and/or turf surfaces. Both years saw a higher than normal amount of rainfall in March. In 2012 Louisville saw 6.22 inches of rain—2.05 inches above normal. This year Louisville saw even more rain in March at 7.14 inches. 

In 2012 according to the National Weather Service, Louisville saw its warmest March on record—with an average monthly temperature 11.6 degrees higher than normal (59.6 degrees)—a warmer than usual April, and its third-warmest May on record (72.6 degrees). Those extremes suggest a possible factor in 2012 but the area saw more normal temperatures from March through May this year.

Could added rain somehow impact the surfaces in May? We'll leave that one to the experts, who have access to detailed weather reports specific to the track each day. A comparison with spring 2012 seems in order.

Added Money in Claiming Races
In thinking about changes that have taken place in the past 12 months, this is the first Churchill spring meet in which Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund money is available for horses in claiming races. While only three of the 12 equine fatalities occurred in claiming races, a review of this change likely would be worthwhile.

In offering an available purse nearly double the claiming price, two of the three races in which a catastrophic breakdown occurred exceeded the American Association of Equine Practitioners guidance that purses not exceed the claiming price by more than 50%. Thanks in part to added KTDF money, two of these three races offered a purse that was 95% higher than the claiming price.

Big Week Pressures
At the other end of the racing spectrum is a third area worth reviewing: safety concerns associated with Kentucky Derby week. This concern seems to fall into the same category as boutique race days that at times have had issues as everybody wants to race before the big crowds and for the big money of these dates. And, tracks want full fields.

After a 2017 Saratoga Race Course meeting saw a spike in catastrophic injuries during racing and training, New York State Gaming Commission equine medical director Scott Palmer talked with horsemen, track veterinarians, and racing executives to understand what happened. He found that boutique meet concerns include pressure to win, potential stress on young horses being asked to win early, a high percentage of horses shipping in, which requires equine competitors to adjust to a new surface and sees regulatory vets assessing horses they have not previously observed; horses dropping in class in search of victory; and non-racing events ahead of the meeting that can delay track work.

Not that the numbers from April and May at Churchill point to all of these issues but at least some—the pressures to win and the higher percentage of horses shipping in to race—certainly seem worth a review. Palmer recommended strong oversight and thoughtful planning as Saratoga geared up for a safer 2018 meeting.

"I'm in no way saying we shouldn't have boutique meets," Palmer said in 2018. "You do have to accept that there are going to be some unusual risk factors at any boutique meet and you have to design protective factors to mitigate that risk."