Horse Racing Deaths Raise Questions About Sport’s Future

The Kentucky Derby has been through two world wars, the Great Depression, civil rights unrest and, most recently, a life-crippling pandemic. Now, on the 150th anniversary of America’s most famous race, the Sport of Kings faces another formidable foe: itself.

Last year, under the iconic twin towers of Churchill Downs, Seven horses died During the week of the Masterpiece Event – two of them are at the races in the hours leading up to the Derby. In the following days, five more were fatally injured, prompting Churchill officials to move their races to another race track in Kentucky.

It got worse. A colt trained by the sport’s most famous and controversial trainer, Bob Baffert, He died at Pimlico Race Course Hours before Mr. Baffert caught the winner of the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the Triple Crown. Two other horses not trained by Mr. Baffert died in races surrounding the Belmont Stakes, the third leg, in June.

In the Historic Saratoga Race Course In New York, 13 horses died while racing and training at the sport’s signature summer meet, including two who appeared to be on the verge of winning their races before collapsing near the finish line in a nationally televised broadcast.

Over the past 12 months, The New York Times has analyzed confidential documents and secret recordings made by law enforcement, and obtained exclusive interviews as part of an investigation into why so many horses, supposedly in peak physical condition, repeatedly collapse. In the documentaryNew York Times Presents: Broken Horsesnow streaming on Hulu, The Times finds that reckless breeding and doping practices, compromised veterinarians and trainers, and decades-long resistance to changes that could save horses’ lives have put a multi-billion-dollar ecosystem at risk, jeopardizing The social acceptance of one of America’s oldest sports is in jeopardy.

“There’s a real sense that this is the tipping point, and if we don’t act, it may be too late,” said Lisa Lazarus, CEO of the Horse Racing Safety and Integrity Authority, or HISA, the federal agency now in operation. Regulates sports.

In Louisville, Kentucky, on Saturday, race officials and horse lovers will collectively hold their breath and hope that every competing horse can get around the track safely. To avoid last year’s disaster, an army of veterinarians will study months of medical records with the help of artificial intelligence and scrutinize horses every morning with the critical eye of a diamond jeweler. Data from high-tech motion sensors will monitor the horses, and an old-fashioned “bucket brigade” as well as state-of-the-art equipment will be dispatched frequently to pick up rocks from the racetrack that authorities have determined may play a role. Collection of deaths last year.

Savvy Joseph Jr, who was suspended by Churchill last year after two horses he was training collapsed and died before the Derby, will have a horse in the race. He was reinstated when autopsies on those horses were inconclusive.

“It was tough times,” Mr Joseph said. “We let the process go. We were as cleansed as we knew we would be.”

HISA investigated the deaths at Churchill and Saratoga and concluded that several factors, including frequency of high-intensity exercise, likely contributed. No illicit drugs were discovered in the horses that died. The majority of injuries involve the fetlock joint. Some of the horses that died received corticosteroid injections into their joints within 30 days of racing. This is currently permitted, although HISA has proposed banning such injections within 30 days.

But the racing’s problems go far beyond what happened last year. The FBI investigation that began in 2015 produced nearly three years of wiretaps that provided the soundtrack to a deadly doping ring that stretched from Florida to New Jersey. At its center was a veterinarian and drug compounder named Dr. Seth Fishman, who bragged on wiretaps about “establishing a relationship with the top trainers and top owners” in the horse racing world. He knew what he was doing, and in at least one case, he wanted to make sure his customers understood they were breaking the rules.

“What I’m trying to say is that any time you give something to a horse, that’s doping. So, don’t kid yourself,” Dr. Fishman told one, as heard on the wiretaps.

The investigation revealed vulnerabilities in US testing laboratories. After an informant informed him that some horses had recently been drugged, an FBI agent posing as a New Jersey racing official took samples from a group of horses and sent them to a Hong Kong laboratory considered one of the most prestigious in the world. Evidence of illegal blood doping has been uncovered.

Steroids were often fatal. US attorneys in the Southern District of New York said their three-year investigation found evidence that at least 20 horses died because they were given illegal drugs by participants in the ring.

“No one believed anyone would go to prison for this behavior,” said Sean Richards, the FBI agent in charge of the investigation. But more than 30 trainers, veterinarians and drug sellers either confessed or were convicted and went to prison.

For the third year in a row, the Derby will be run without a horse trained by Mr. Baffert. In 2021, his colt Medina Spirit won the Derby but He was later excluded After testing positive for betamethasone, a powerful corticosteroid used to relieve pain and inflammation. Churchill Downs I stopped him from racing tracks for two years, and over the summer, the suspension was extended until 2024.

Mr. Baffert’s horses have won the Derby six times, and he has been named champion trainer four times. He ranks third on the list of career earnings with more than $355 million in purses. Mr. Baffert also has a long record of rule violations. According to regulator records, horses he trained failed 30 drug tests over four decades — most notably Medina Spirit, who died After rehearsing at a California racetrack five months after the Derby was run. Since 2000, at least 77 horses have died under his care, according to California Horse Racing Board data.

“We have decided to continue Bob Baffert’s suspension for another year because he has not taken responsibility for what happened,” Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen said of the positive test in the Derby. “It’s about the game and the product as a whole, and it’s about ensuring that the audience can rely on what they think is fair and safe. The rules should apply to everyone.”

Mr. Baffert returned to the Triple Crown track last year to win the Preakness Stakes with National Treasure in Baltimore. But hours earlier, another of his colts, Havenmiltdown, suffered a fatal injury during the race and was euthanized on the track.

The Times had two veterinarians, Dr. Sheila Lyons and Dr. Kate Babb, independently review records related to the 2023 deaths at Churchill Downs and Pimlico. Dr. Lyons said the autopsy from Churchill was clear but incomplete because he lacked medications and treatment histories for each horse.

“What I found was that these horses had significant pre-existing injuries, not only in the fractured limb, but in other limbs as well,” Dr. Lyons said. “We don’t even know if these horses are using legal therapeutic drugs.”

In the case of Havenmeltdown, Dr Lyons and Dr Babb agreed that his death could have been prevented by attentive veterinary care by his own vet as well as the regulatory authorities responsible for ensuring the horse’s safety before allowing him to race. Havenmeltdown had lesions on each bump, which occur when cartilage wears down due to repeated injury.

“Not only was it in the leg where this fracture occurred, this horse had it in all four of his limbs,” Dr. Lyons said. “This is easily diagnosed, as with the X-ray equipment located in each lane of the vet’s vehicle, it will take 10 minutes.”

Dr Lyons said regulatory vets noted abnormal findings in the colt’s range of motion and gait, but ultimately concluded the horse was healthy enough to race. In addition, Havenmiltdown was injected with corticosteroids and hyaluronic acid — a pain reliever and anti-inflammatory — in both hocks and both stifles a month before his last race. HISA allows joint injections up to 14 days before a race.

“Halfnameltdown was not supposed to be racing that day. “Not, absolutely, under any circumstances,” Dr. Babb said, based on her review of the autopsy results. “Baffert is this horse’s primary supervisor. In my opinion, he is the party responsible for what happened.”

In an emailed statement, Mr. Baffert’s lawyer, Clark Brewster, said: “He entrusts the medical evaluation, diagnosis and treatment of horses to his veterinarians and relies on their expertise. Baffert cares deeply about the horses in his care and is fully committed to their health, safety, and overall well-being.

In August 2023, Mr. Baffert’s longtime veterinarian, Dr. Vince Baker, was placed on probation for four years by the California Board of Veterinary Medicine for administering “dangerous drugs” to racehorses — including Medina Spirit — “based on At the request of their coaches without medical treatment. examinations or necessary.”

This will be the first derby to fall under the HISA anti-doping and anti-drug programme, which came into effect on May 22 – two days after the death of Hfnmeltdown. HISA was charged with enforcing uniform safety and medication rules for thoroughbred racing in the United States, but it has faced an uphill battle since Congress created it in 2020, replacing state regulatory agencies.

However, more than 50,000 samples were collected from 21,750 horses in 2023, resulting in 246 positive tests and the identification of 58 banned substances. The authority searched 141 barns across 38 routes and seized five different prohibited items, leading to 11 possession cases. An anonymous tip line received 122 calls, more than 40 of which led to an investigation.

“Are we ahead of the curve now? Probably not,” Ms. Lazarus said of her ability to discover performance-enhancing drugs. “But we have a good chance of getting there.”

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association has acknowledged that horse racing has an image problem and recently began a multi-million dollar advertising campaign called Safety comes first Which will be displayed throughout the Triple Crown.

One change celebrated by HISA is its use of six drug testing laboratories to achieve uniformity and faster delivery times. However, the University of Kentucky’s Equine Analytical Chemistry Laboratory was recently removed due to alleged staffing and quality issues. Neither the university nor HISA commented while investigations were underway.

The fatal injury rate rose slightly in 2023, to 1.32 per 1,000 starts, from 1.25 in 2022, the lowest rate since 2009, when the Jockey Club started the database. HISA said racetracks under its jurisdiction had 1.23 deaths per 1,000 starts. (Texas, Louisiana, West Virginia, and Nebraska have opposed HISA regulation and are not covered.) None of the data sets include training-related deaths.

By 2025, the agency hopes to have a public database that records racing and training deaths as they occur, like those maintained by California and New York, Ms. Lazarus said. She also said that HISA is working to standardize autopsy procedures.

She acknowledges that there are limits to the authority of HISA, which includes horses registered for specific training at the racecourse. Breeding and sales remain largely unregulated, and practices such as frequent breeding of unhealthy horses, corrective surgeries and drug abuse are believed to be widespread. The three major thoroughbred horse retailers recently announced that they will strengthen their drug policy starting July 1 to more closely align with HISA. However, implementing such a policy would be up to companies, and no details were provided.

Arthur Hancock III, who with his wife, Staci, has campaigned for reform since the 1990s, says the authority must work. In 2013, the pair formed the Water Hay Oats Coalition to Get Drugs Out of Racing, expanding it to include more than 1,800 industry members who exposed jockeys, vets, politicians and regulators for treating thoroughbreds as athletes rather than commodities.

“There’s a new mayor in town, and he’s interested in business,” Mr. Hancock, a fourth-generation educator, said of HISA. “If we don’t get rid of the drugs and thugs, they will get rid of us.”

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