Four horses died in the past week at Churchill Downs, raising concerns about the safety of the sport of horse racing. With the Kentucky Derby approaching, questions are being asked about the measures taken to ensure the safety of the animals during races. Although injuries are accepted as inherent consequences of the sport, there are concerns about the frequency of fatal injuries and whether enough is being done to address the issue.
According to the Jockey Club, more than 7,200 horses have died in races in the United States and Canada from 2009-21. This is a staggering number that cannot be ignored, and animal welfare advocates and industry experts alike are calling for increased regulation to ensure the safety of horses during races.
Wayne Pacelle, the president of Animal Wellness Action and a vocal advocate for tighter regulation of the racing industry, commented: “When you’re in competition, there are risks. I don’t think a zero-injury or zero-death standard is achievable. But we can do so much better than the present circumstances.”
While it may be impossible to eliminate all injuries and deaths, Pacelle’s point is valid. The industry needs to do more to minimize the risk to the animals that are the heart of the sport.
Churchill Downs indefinitely suspended trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. after two horses under his management collapsed and died after races, and Lord Miles was scratched from the Derby. This decision was commendable, though there has been no finding on why either of Joseph’s horses died.
After the 2019 Santa Anita racing season, new rules were created to address track safety, horse health, and state-by-state doping rules. Court challenges to protect the status quo have delayed new antidoping measures.
Breeding practices that improve a horse’s speed but may also increase the risk of other health problems is a slippery slope that the industry needs to navigate. The challenge here is to find a balance between breeding horses for speed and safety. Not only will adherence to safety regulations and anti-doping policies help, but they will be essential. The sport of horse racing must demonstrate its commitment to animal welfare.
After his 2021 Derby winner failed a post-race drug test and was disqualified, Bob Baffert, the sport’s most notorious trainer, was banned for two years and won’t be at the track on Derby Day.
While many have called for racing to be abolished, Pacelle acknowledges that the industry will remain part of the sporting world. It’s a massive industry in the United States, providing jobs and revenue, and millions of people are passionate about it.
Here’s to hoping that the 19 horses in the Kentucky Derby make it to the finish line safely and that the industry will continue to work towards improved standards and regulations for the welfare of the animals.