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HISA releases report on Churchill Downs deaths as Saratoga probe continues

Fans cheers during race five before the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky.
Charlie Riedel
Fans cheers during race five before the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky.

The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority has released a report detailing circumstances surrounding a dozen horse deaths at Churchill Downs this spring. The new federal oversight body is also keeping a close eye on New York tracks.

The report found there was no single factor leading to the fatalities in Kentucky, but that some horse training histories indicated increased risk due to “the frequency and cadence” of horses’ exercise and racing schedules.

On a virtual press conference Tuesday, HISA CEO Lisa Lazarus said the federal agency is committed to reducing equine fatalities nationwide.

“This is for certain an all-hands-on-deck moment,” she said. “There’s no one stakeholder group that’s responsible for the fatalities, so no one stakeholder group can take the responsibility for solving the issue. This is something that we have to do together as an industry and move forward.”

The report was released on the eve of the fall meet at Churchill, after racing was halted there in June and shifted to Ellis Park, also in Kentucky, after a rash of deaths.

The report found no correlation between the racing surface at the home of the Kentucky Derby and horse injuries, which occurred at several locations on the track. None of the horses that died tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

HISA is also probing more than a dozen horse fatalities this year at Saratoga Race Course. The meet ended on Labor Day with new safety protocols and HISA officials on site — work that the New York Racing Association says it supports. One area of focus is the racing surfaces.

The 40-day meet at the Spa was marked by high-profile deaths on some of the busiest racing days of the season, including breakdowns on Whitney Day and Travers Day.

HISA says its Saratoga review began on August 5 and includes necropsy results, veterinary records, racing and training histories, surface maintenance logs and weather records.

Lazarus said the report on safety at Saratoga hasn’t been finalized.

“We don’t yet have the findings so I have nothing to announce, but the situation is different,” she said. “There are different factors in play at Saratoga than were at play in Churchill and I’m optimistic that we’re going to learn a whole lot from that investigation as well that will allow us to fine-tune and do even a better job going forward.”

In a recent interview with WAMC, NYRA spokesman Patrick McKenna acknowledged a move toward synthetic surfaces is possible, saying it could make a “dramatic difference” in safety.

“All of the available data suggests that synthetic racing surfaces are statistically safer than dirt tracks when it comes to preventing the most serious injuries,” he said. “The other huge advantage of a synthetic surface, and this is the work that we will engage in in the coming weeks and months — it’s obviously a priority — is that a synthetic surface may alleviate some of the wear and tear on the turf courses.”

NYRA’s next meet runs at Aqueduct from Sept. 14 through Oct. 29, as work continues on a half-billion dollar renovation at Belmont Park.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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