Despite its popularity, horse racing is a dangerous sport for both horse and jockey. Last week, Churchill Downs—site of the Kentucky Derby—announced it would suspend racing operations for the rest of the spring after 12 horses died in a month. Operations will resume June 10 at Ellis Park in Henderson, Kentucky.
In its statement, Churchill Downs said “no single factor has been identified as a potential cause” of the deaths, but nearly all horses were euthanized after suffering serious injuries on the racetrack. During the suspension, investigators plan to conduct a “top-to-bottom review” of all safety protocols, including making sure the surface of the track is safe for racing.
“What has happened at our track is deeply upsetting and absolutely unacceptable,” Bill Carstanjen, CEO of Churchill, said in the statement.
Historically, many racehorse deaths have resulted from limb injuries, followed by respiratory, digestive, and multiorgan system disorders. In 2019, when a then-unprecedented 42 horses died at Santa Anita Park in California, most were due to limb injuries.
The rate of deaths at Churchill Downs in April and May 2023 is higher than that of Santa Anita Park in 2019, according to the animal welfare group Animal Wellness Action.
“The show cannot just go on, and the leadership of the track should hit the pause button for the well-being of the horses and of the industry itself,” Joseph Grove, director of communications for Animal Wellness Action, said by email.
Horse racing has become more competitive, said Rick Arthur, former equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board. Horses aren’t getting the rest they need, especially in temperate places like southern California, where the animals race year-round, he says. (Read how horses are evolving to be faster.)
“It’s hard to keep an athlete absolutely at the top of their fitness 12 months out of the year.”
The unprecedented spate of fatalities at Santa Anita in 2019 placed renewed focus on the safety of the sport.
For instance, bipartisan U.S. lawmakers introduced the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act to create a uniform national standard for drug testing racehorses. The bill passed in 2020, and the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, which is managed by the Federal Trade Commission, was formed. The horse racing industry was formerly regulated by states.
The Jockey Club supported the bill, saying in 2019 that “it’s time we joined the rest of the world in putting in place the best measures to protect the health and safety of our equine athletes.”
Authorities have cracked down on illegal drugging in recent years. In March 2020, federal prosecutors charged 27 trainers, veterinarians, performance-enhancing drug peddlers, and others for taking part in racehorse doping rings, and in February 2022, Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit was stripped of his title after failing a drug test.
Trainer Bob Baffert, who had previously written an op-ed stating the industry was in “crisis” and needed national anti-doping regulation, was subsequently suspended from Churchill Downs for two years.
While a broken leg is easily treatable for humans, it’s often a death sentence for horses.
That’s because horses have so little soft tissue in their legs that the bone often tears through skin or cuts off circulation to the rest of the limb, leaving them prone to infection.
In some severe cases, the bone shatters, making it nearly impossible to reassemble. (Read how horses are smarter than we think.)
Even if the horse’s bone could be set, it wouldn’t be able to support weight for several weeks. If horses can’t distribute their weight relatively evenly, they risk laminitis, a potentially fatal inflammation of tissue inside the hoof.
In general, if a horse can’t stand on all four legs on its own, it won’t survive and will be euthanized, Arthur says.
And when a horse falls, its jockey is often hurt, too. A 2013 analysis of about five years of California horse racing data showed 184 jockey injuries from 360 reported falls.
Most of the falls occurred during races and were the result of a “catastrophic injury or sudden death of the horse,” the study found.
The drug controversy
Trainers have been accused of making an already risky situation worse by drugging horses with performance-enhancing substances or painkillers, animal welfare advocates say.
Such drugs allow horses to run faster and power through the pain. For example, the drug furosemide, popularly known under the brand name Lasix, is a “performance-enhancing drug cloaked as a therapeutic medication,” according to a March 2019 report by the Jockey Club.
While it’s prescribed to treat bleeding in the lungs, the medication also causes urination and, consequently, weight loss. Lighter horses run faster, and Lasix has been shown to help horses run three to five lengths faster. Lasix is banned at some races, and Churchill Downs bans its use on all two-year-old horses racing days. (Read about the most detailed history of horse evolution ever assembled.)
While some animal activists feel such drugs should be banned entirely, others in the horse racing industry believe better self-regulation is the answer.
The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority is performing a three-year study into whether Lasix is a performance enhancer, and if it’s healthy for horses. The board will then vote, and it’s expected they will choose to entirely ban use on race day, according to Animal Wellness Action.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published May 17, 2019. It has been updated.