Racing regulators hold emergency meeting to investigate horse deaths
By Joe Drape
The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority gathered Kentucky state regulatory veterinarians, along with vets from Churchill Downs, earlier this week to examine why 12 horses have been fatally injured at the historic racetrack in a matter of weeks and to decide whether to recommend pausing racing there.
Lisa Lazarus, CEO of the authority, called the “emergency veterinary summit” in Lexington, Kentucky, to review necropsies, toxicology reports and veterinarians’ and trainers’ notes on the deaths, seven of which preceded this month’s Kentucky Derby. The deaths have cast a pall over the Triple Crown season, the few weeks each spring when casual sports fans have heightened focus on horse racing.
In addition, the authority has asked a longtime California track superintendent, Dennis Moore, to examine the racing surfaces at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, and offer an independent analysis of the dirt and turf courses’ suitability for racing.
“I have not had a single jockey or trainer tell me that they believe the track is a factor in these fatalities,” Lazarus said Tuesday. Most of the deaths occurred after horses broke down while racing.
Along with a review of the protocols Kentucky state veterinarians follow to make sure horses are fit to race, Lazarus said that vet records would be scoured for illegal or misused drugs. She said the authority will apply “very intense scrutiny from a testing standpoint to any horse that we’re concerned about” as well as increased surveillance and attention on their trainers.
The reviews of the veterinary and medication history of each horse were led by Jennifer Durenberger, the authority’s director of equine safety and welfare.
“It’s basically trying to get a whole snapshot of that horse’s history in the month leading up to the injury,” Lazarus said. “We have to turn over every leaf, look under every stone.”
She said her agency would have a recommendation from the summit by the end of the day Wednesday about whether and how Churchill Downs should proceed with racing.
“Everyone is committed to figuring out what is happening and committed to stopping it,” Lazarus said.
Lazarus acknowledged that the authority could not force Churchill Downs to stop holding races, but it could prohibit the track from sending the broadcast of its races to other courses or internet betting sites to be wagered on. That would be costly to Churchill Downs, which receives a percentage of those bets.
“My strong view is that if we were to make a recommendation to Churchill Downs to shut down racing that they would accept that recommendation,” Lazarus said.
The authority is flexing its muscles as troubles in horse racing are raising questions about how long America’s oldest sport can continue to have its social license renewed.
The authority was established by Congress and is overseen by the Federal Trade Commission to ensure the health and safety of horse racing’s athletes — human and equine. Its primary responsibility is to eliminate doping and abuse within thoroughbred racing.