By Keith Dane
Update 5/8/23: A total of seven horses died at Churchill Downs in the days leading up to and on the day of the Kentucky Derby, and five horses were scratched. In light of these facts, it is shocking that the race was even run. Lives are on the line: The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act must be fully implemented and enforced immediately. Anyone seeking to delay such protections for horses cares nothing at all for the welfare of these animals.
For years, we’ve fought to bring greater protection for racehorses, and recently we’ve helped to secure major wins on their behalf, such as ensuring the passage and implementation of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act. This bill, which became law in 2020, involved a good deal of effort and extended negotiations with forward-thinking industry leaders. As the Kentucky Derby approaches, Keith Dane, the senior director of equine protection for the Humane Society of the United States, reflects on recent progress made for horses on tracks across the U.S. and what is urgently needed to make horse racing more humane.
No other race attracts the audience and viewership of the Kentucky Derby, the first of the three annual horse races known as the Triple Crown. Despite all the pomp and circumstance associated with the sport, horse racing and the Derby have a far less glamorous dimension.
This year, even before the horses enter the starting gate, the race has been marred by the news of four horse deaths at Churchill Downs, the racetrack that hosts the Derby, ahead of the big race. Two were euthanized after injuries, and two other horses died suddenly of undetermined causes.
This isn’t the first time horse deaths have shown racing’s tragic side. In one notorious case, in 2008, the second-place winning filly, Eight Belles, suffered a catastrophic breakdown just after the Derby ended, fracturing both her front ankles and resulting in her immediate euthanasia, to the shock and horror of spectators at the race and TV viewers worldwide.
The recent spate of deaths at Laurel Park in Maryland, where 13 horses have died, is another indication of ongoing safety concerns that the industry needs to address in order to protect racehorses.
We have been fighting for necessary reforms, which clearly cannot come too soon for the horses whose lives are on the line. This Saturday will be the first Kentucky Derby run under the new racetrack safety rules implemented under the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act. The implementation of the new Anti-Doping and Medication Control rules that were finalized in March has been pushed back to May 22, in time for the Belmont Stakes, the final leg of the Triple Crown on June 4. Just last year, Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit tested positive on race day for a banned drug and was formally disqualified and stripped of his 2021 victory.
We celebrated when the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act was signed into law, and when an amendment intended to address a question about the constitutionality of the Act was passed last December. We’ll monitor the Act’s implementation and work with our industry partners to ensure it increases protection for racehorses, which is clearly urgently needed.
While doping is believed to be a major contributor to racehorse breakdowns and fatalities, there are other ongoing threats to racehorse welfare, and the Authority established by the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act is well-positioned to address them. Implementation of the new safety rules is off to a fair start. For example, while the use of whips continues to be a very visible, visceral and controversial element of racing, the Authority has established strict rules limiting their use, penalizing jockeys who violate those rules. The Authority is also working to address the dangers of unforgiving track surfaces that have not been properly maintained, which can also lead to breakdowns, injuries and fatalities.
A number of prominent trainers, owners, breeders and jockeys came forward in support of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act and are now pressing for its enforcement. But some states and industry organizations, such as the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (a trade group of owners, trainers and backstretch personnel), have dug in their heels—even going so far as to file lawsuits to block the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act’s implementation. The association attempted to block reform by filing a lawsuit resulting in a court-ordered 30-day injunction of the enforcement of the Act’s drug and medication rules. But the injunction expired May 1, and the Federal Trade Commission ordered that enforcement be resumed, clearing the way for the Act’s rules and regulations to take effect on May 22.
While some may continue to fight reforms that make racing safer for horses, we know that in the long run those individuals and organizations will lose. That’s because the American public is increasingly humane-minded and less likely to tolerate a sport that treats animals as mere commodities, routinely sees its athletes die on the field and discounts their deaths as a cost of doing business.