LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The morning after the 2022 Kentucky Derby, horse racing took an exuberant and hopeful victory lap. Rich Strike had reintroduced the sport to the dreamer in all of us, winning at odds of 80-1.
His trainer, Eric Reed, was an everyday Kentucky hardboot from the casino racetracks. His rider, Sonny Leon, had washed out on the more glamorous Florida circuit before finding success riding every race possible in Ohio.
Suddenly, after winning the first leg of the Triple Crown races, they were stars, modest ones, but for all the right reasons.
By all rights, a colt named Mage, the Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano and the trainer Gustavo Delgado should share that same status.
The modestly bred Mage rumbled down the stretch to win this year’s Kentucky Derby on Saturday at 15-1 odds. Castellano, one of the most admired gentlemen in his profession, finally won at the only big race where victory had eluded him. And Delgado, like Castellano a native of Venezuela, was standing in the winner’s circle that he had dreamed of being in as a boy.
But their accomplishments were eclipsed by the death of seven horses at Churchill Downs in the lead-up to the Derby. Four horses were scratched because of veterinarians’ concerns about their health. A fifth was scratched because, well, the Lords of Churchill were suspicious of the trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. after two of his horses collapsed and died following races.
Officials declared their racetrack safe and suspended Joseph indefinitely from competing in the Derby or at any other tracks owned by Churchill Downs Inc.
After two more horses, on the Derby undercard, suffered fatal injuries and were subsequently euthanized, it was clear that this was not all Joseph’s fault.
So whose fault was it?
Long after the Derby was over and the lights were going out on a tragic day, first, Churchill Downs, then the newly minted Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, released statements with the same message: It wasn’t them.
“While each incident reported has been unique, it is important to note that there has been no discernible pattern detected in the injuries sustained,” Churchill Downs said in its statement. “Our track surfaces are closely monitored by industry experts to ensure their integrity.”
The authority, established under the oversight of the Federal Trade Commission, agreed that Churchill’s surfaces were safe and that regulatory veterinarians had proclaimed the two horses that were put down fit to race. Churchill Downs said it would work with the authority and the state racing commission to investigate the deaths.
“If a horse is deemed unfit to race by the regulatory veterinarians, it will be scratched, as was the case in a number of circumstances this week,” the statement read. “Both Chloe’s Dream and Freezing Point passed all inspections without incident.”
Do the math. Seven horses dead. It doesn’t add up.
What does is the data that shows America’s oldest sport is losing its athletes, its revenues and its fans.
In 2002, more than $15 billion was bet on races in the United States; last year, the handle fell to $12 billion. In 2000, nearly 33,000 thoroughbred foals were registered, almost double the number from last year, and there were 4,300 stallions, four times the number from last year, according to the fact book released by the Jockey Club, a leading industry organization.
Horse racing in the United States has long admitted that it has a culture of drugs and lax regulation and a far higher rate of horses breaking down and being euthanized than most other places in the world.
In 1991, the horse breeder and owner Arthur Hancock III delivered what he called his “drugs and thugs speech” at an industry symposium, telling his colleagues what they already knew: Too many horses were running on performance-enhancing drugs or were so doped up on anti-inflammatories and painkillers that they were running unnaturally fast and hurting themselves, often fatally.
He offered up the Horse Racing Act of 1992, which called for drug-free racing, uniform rules backed by stiff penalties and a central office to enforce them. Thirty years later, finally, the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority exists, but not without continuing legal challenges and stubborn resistance from its own community.
Now, it needs to do its job.
Enforce the rules. Punish the wrongdoers. Throw them out. Take responsibility for the health and welfare of the human and the equine athletes.
The sport has shown that it can make progress when the outliers are wrangled and pointed toward a common goal. But it took hearings before Congress to do so.
After the filly Eight Belles was injured and euthanized following a second-place finish in the 2008 Derby, the Jockey Club created the Equine Injury Database to analyze how the injuries occurred and how they could be prevented.
In 2009, its first year, thoroughbreds had fatal injuries at the rate of two per 1,000 starts. Last year, there were 1.25 fatalities per 1,000 starts compared to 1.39 fatalities per 1,000 starts in 2021. It was the fourth consecutive year that the rate had decreased and the first time it had been below 1.3 fatalities per 1,000 starts.
Seven horses died on horse racing’s biggest stage in the past week and a half. Not only do animal rights advocates want to know who is responsible, but so does anyone who bets a dollar on the action or merely watches and marvels at a thoroughbred in motion.
It is the horses that are feeding everyone in a multibillion-dollar industry. It is the humans who are letting them down.