Horse racing will be suspended at Churchill Downs and moved to a different Kentucky racetrack as federal and state regulators continue to investigate the deaths of 12 horses at Churchill in the past five weeks, the company said in a statement on Friday.
Live horse racing will continue at the home of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday and Sunday and move next week to another Churchill Downs-owned racetrack, Ellis Park, in Henderson, Ky. The Churchill meet was to have ended on July 3 before moving on to Ellis Park for the traditional summer race meet scheduled from July 7 to Aug. 27.
Experts brought in by the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority to examine the spate of horse deaths — two of which occurred on the undercard of the Kentucky Derby on May 6 — thus far have been unable to detect a pattern in the deaths.
Diagnostics of the racetrack have not raised concerns and dirt and grass surfaces appear consistent with measurements from Churchill Downs in past years. Still, the company said it was relocating the meet even though it said “no issues have been linked to our racing surfaces.”
“What has happened at our track is deeply upsetting and absolutely unacceptable,” said Bill Carstanjen, the chief executive of Churchill Downs Inc. “We need to take more time to conduct a top-to-bottom review of all of the details and circumstances so that we can further strengthen our surface, safety and integrity protocols.”
Lisa Lazarus, the chief executive of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, said in a statement that the authority recommended to Churchill Downs that it cease racing because the cause of the deaths hasn’t been determined and therefore it isn’t clear what changes to make.
The deaths have cast a pall over the Triple Crown season, the few weeks each spring when casual sports fans pay close attention to horse racing, tuning in to enjoy the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes.
Some trainers were unhappy with Churchill Downs’ plans to move the meet. They also criticized other recent precautions implemented at the track.
“Horsemen question the purpose of this unprecedented step, especially without conclusive evidence that there is a problem with the racetrack at Churchill Downs,” said Rick Hiles, the president of the Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, in a statement. “We all want to find solutions that will improve safety for horses. However, we need to discuss allowing trainers and veterinarians to use therapeutic medications that greatly lessen the risk of breakdowns. Drastic steps, such as relocating an active race meet, should only be considered when it is certain to make a difference.”
On Thursday, Churchill Downs put in place measures meant to discourage trainers from running unsound horses. Those same rules will be in effect at Ellis Park.
The track will no longer offer incentives to trainers who start horses in its races or pay purse money for first place through last place, according to a statement from the company. Payouts instead will be limited to the top five finishers.
Horses also will be allowed only four starts during a rolling eight-week period and horses that are beaten by more than 12 lengths in five consecutive starts will be ineligible to race until the equine medical director approves their return to racing.
The changes suggest Churchill believes its bonus policies, which were intended to provide fuller fields for the betting public, may have affected the decision making of horsemen.
Dr. Jennifer Durenberger, the director of equine safety and welfare for the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, met this week with veterinarians from Churchill Downs and the state of Kentucky to review necropsies, toxicology reports and veterinarians’ and trainers’ notes on the deaths.
On Wednesday, Dennis Moore, a longtime California track superintendent, examined the racing surfaces at Churchill and offered an independent analysis of the dirt and turf courses’ suitability for racing. That review is ongoing, according to the authority, and his findings will be made public once it is concluded.