Just days after being identified as one of the deadliest horse racing tracks in the United States, Churchill Downs introduced a number of safety measures that it says it will begin incorporating this year.

The recent press release entails several initiatives, a few of which overlap with Santa Anita Park’s recent reforms, including phasing out of the only race-day medication currently allowed, Lasix. Beginning immediately, the maximum allowable dosage has been reduced from 10cc to 5cc. The goal is to eliminate its use entirely at all racetracks and races, including the Kentucky Derby, starting in 2021.

In addition to race-day medication, the use of the riding crop is also included in Churchill Downs’ reform, much like Santa Anita. In the press release, Churchill Downs is aiming to adopt international standards for riding crop use. 

“While the low-impact riding crop is an essential aid to safe horsemanship, its use should be humane and limited to safety, course correction and responsible encouragement,” according to the press release. “Once Kentucky regulators update the applicable regulations, we will immediately adopt the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA) model rules that govern the use of the low-impact riding crop worldwide.”

The concern for jockey safety is also being reformed so that a formal concussion protocol will be developed. Churchill Downs is adding to their existing protocol that delivers immediate care to jockeys by incorporating more thorough jockey education, baseline concussion testing, onsite evaluation after a fall and return-to-ride requirements. 

Outside of race day, Churchill Downs is making several other improvements as well. It will be investing $8 million in the construction of an equine medical center, a quarantine facility and related improvements to the backside of the track. In addition, $100,000 will be committed to additional financial support to fund industry research geared toward the safety and welfare of racehorses. This especially includes improving treatment options for joint and leg injuries. 

Other reforms include the installation of surveillance cameras, the creation of an independent national Office of Racing Integrity and the hiring of an equine medical director to oversee the safety and care, as well as to educate owners and trainers about safety practices. One key reform includes incorporating additional equine mediation in the form of increased withdrawal times for nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and cortico-steroids, as prescribed in pre-race veterinary examinations.

“All of us in the industry care deeply about the safety and well-being of racehorses, and we know how much they mean to the people who love and care for them,” says Bill Carstanjen, chief executive officer (CEO) of Churchill Downs Inc. “As the host of the Kentucky Derby and a key leader in the racing industry, Churchill Downs has a heightened responsibility to implement the world’s best practices for caring for racehorses at our facility.”

Churchill Downs does not publicly disclose its casualty rates; however, a spokesperson recently confirmed that 43 Thoroughbreds were lost since 2016, according to Courier Journal. That brings the average to 2.42 equine deaths per 1,000 starts, which was 50% higher than the national average during the same period of time. In 2018, the death rate was higher still, at 2.73 per 1,000. The high rate of deaths at both Santa Anita and Churchill Downs has track officials looking to set a better example.

“We also have a responsibility to educated and advocate so that others do so as well,” says Carstanjen. “Over the last several years, the landscape for animal welfare and safety practices has changed for the better, and we will continue to embrace this progress and move forward with the advancements to improve the health and welfare of our equine as well as human athletes. Our leadership and commitment to these important issues will never waiver.”

Track consultant and director of the University of Kentucky’s agricultural equine programs Mick Peterson is stressing that the deaths were multifactorial and not the result of any one direct cause.

“It really is one of those moments where we need to step back and say we’ve got to do this better, and we’ve got to change how we’re doing it,” Peterson says. “Because otherwise, the industry is not going to survive. People don’t accept [racing fatalities] the way they did.”

Despite the many reforms Churchill Downs aims to make, changing the track surface is not listed as one of the projects. For the 10 years that the Equine Injury Database has been collecting data, synthetic track surfaces display the fewest number of casualties each year. And yet, only five synthetic tracks are in operation in North America. 

“Looking at it right now, the big difference between the synthetic and the dirt is the synthetic is insensitive to moisture content,” says Peterson, who holds a doctorate in engineering. “And so, we see that big difference.”

The difference is 50%. There are 1.2 deaths per 1,000 starts on synthetic turf compared with 1.8 per 1,000 on dirt. The throw-back is that trainers and owners are observing different injuries from synthetic surfaces. While that type of surface isn’t extending the horses’ careers, it’s also not robbing them of the opportunity either. 

Despite the data displaying a clear difference in the rate of fatalities, KHRC equine medical director Dr. Mary Scollay warns that isolating one issue can make others worse. At the Aqueduct racetrack in New York, a risk factor of inflated purse-to-claiming price ratio was observed and reformed in 2010-11. When a claiming horse that sold for $10,000 was entered in a purse of $40,000, the animals were seen as expendable.

After the purse and claiming price ratio was adjusted, the track saw a noticeable decline in bets placed and wagering. While the reform was good for horses, it turned out to be bad for business. 

The crowd-drawing Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs is scheduled for May 4.