Nearly a year after the first fatal injury at America's most
famous horse race, Churchill Downs announced Monday it is beefing
up safety requirements ahead of this year's Kentucky Derby.
The company is enacting more than 20 changes, ranging from
enhanced drug testing to limits on whips and racing ages, in time
for the start of the spring meet at its signature track in
Louisville, Ky. Other Churchill-owned tracks, including Arlington
Park in Arlington Heights, Ill.; Calder Race Course in Miami
Gardens, Fla.; and Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots in New Orleans,
will follow by next year.
While some of the changes, such as testing for steroids, were
already required under new state racing regulations, Churchill is
taking the lead on other elements. For example, the dirt track at
Churchill Downs will be subjected to rigorous performance testing
using a robotic hoof device that aims to simulate the force and
speed of a horse.
"We think we've always had one of the safest racetracks in the
country, but we think these initiatives will make us even safer,"
said Jim Gates, general manager at Churchill Downs racetrack.
Racehorse safety was thrust into the national spotlight after
the filly Eight Belles finished second in last year's Derby, only
to pull up lame as she jogged past the finish line. An autopsy
showed compound fractures in both front legs, and the horse had to
be euthanized on the track.
Although Eight Belles' trainer Larry Jones has long argued it
was a fluke accident that had nothing to do with the racing
surface, he praised Churchill for the changes Monday and expressed
satisfaction the death of one of his most beloved pupils may have
helped make the sport safer.
"If it was to draw attention and make the game a better game,
if that's why the good lord had her do it, I guess that's a good
thing," Jones said.
With speculation swirling that the muscular filly may have been
drugged up prior to the race, Jones insisted on a full autopsy to
prove she wasn't. The tests verified his claims, and one of
Churchill's new requirements is a mandatory, independent autopsy
any time a horse dies through racing or training at the track.
Bob Evans, president of Churchill Downs Inc., said historical
records show Eight Belles has been the only catastrophic injury
among the 1,710 horses that competed in the 134 runnings of the
But while the Derby is the signature event, breakdowns during
lesser-known races are common. A review by The Associated Press
last year found fatal injuries were practically a daily occurrence,
with more than 5,000 breakdowns reported - and countless others not
reported - between 2003 and 2007 at the nation's thoroughbred
Alex Waldrop, president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred
Racing Association, praised the actions by Churchill Downs as an
"unprecedented level of commitment."
Some of the changes were already included for the Derby and
other graded stakes races but are now, for the first time, also
being implemented at lesser events.
The new "supertesting" procedure falls into that category.
While the Derby already had it in place a year ago, now winning
horses at every Churchill race will be tested for more than 100
illegal, performance-enhancing drugs - about double what previous
tests would have detected.
Andy Schweigardt, director of industry relations and development
for the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, said the
requirement is exactly what the organization has been pushing all
tracks to adopt. Many tracks have been reluctant, based on costs
sometimes topping $250 for a single test, but Schweigardt said he
is hopeful Churchill's lead will provide an example for the
And Churchill also is leaving open the possibility of future
testing beyond what is now available with a measure calling for the
freezing and storage of equine blood and urine samples.
Other noticeable safety changes that will be on display for the
spring meet include:
- A ban on unsafe horseshoes, including a limit on the length of
front "toe grabs" that critics say act as a cleat and can cause
- Mandatory use of safety vests and helmets by jockeys, exercise
riders and other on-track personnel.
- Extra foam padding on the starting gates, and an emergency
- Limits on whipping procedures, and a ban on high-impact riding
- 10-horse field limits for some races, although no immediate
plans to change the maximum 20 starters for the Derby.
- A ban on racing for any horse younger than 24 months old.