Kentucky Derby organizers implement more safety measures after last year’s string of deaths at historic track

Kentucky Derby organizers implement more safety measures after last year’s string of deaths at historic track


The 149th edition of the Kentucky Derby was overshadowed by the deaths of 12 horses in the days surrounding the race at the historic track. Two horses died on May 6, 2023 — the same day as last year’s race.

The deaths came at a time when the sport of horse racing traditionally draws the most attention. But, last year’s tragic series of events at Churchill Downs left many in tears and raised questions about the safety of the sport.

“You can’t ever be too safe when it comes to our sport,” jockey Mike Smith, a two-time Derby-winner said. 

The number of deaths in the US increased slightly in 2023 from the year before, according to data tracked by the Equine Injury Database and reported by HISA. HISA said there were 1.32 deaths per 1,000 starts last year, up from 1.25 the previous year. 

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FILE – Javier Castellano, atop Mage, third from left, is seen with others behind the pack as they make the first turn while competing in the 149th running of the Kentucky Derby horse race at Churchill Downs Saturday, May 6, 2023, in Louisville, Ky. Horse deaths marred last year’s Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Breeders’ Cup, with officials finding no single factor to blame. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

“We’re encouraged by that progress,” said Lisa Lazarus, CEO of HISA, “but we certainly have a whole lot more work to do.”

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A review of 14 horse deaths at Saratoga in upstate New York last summer found no definitive cause for why they happened, although heavy rainfall could have contributed.

Investigations by Churchill Downs and the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) — the sport’s new governing body — didn’t identify one common cause for the deaths around the Derby.

A horse runs on the track

Resilience runs on the track during the morning training for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on April 28, 2024 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

The 2024 Kentucky Derby will take place on May 4. The deaths prompted Churchill Downs to make several changes to its safety program ahead of Saturday.

The track upgraded equipment used to harrow and grade the dirt surface, with increased testing to measure safety and consistency. The cushion is measured in spots around the track and moisture content is checked throughout racing days to decide the watering schedule.

“The track is a lot different than it was. It’s got more sand in it now, it’s got more base, more cushion,” said Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who saddles Just Steel in the Derby. “It’s quite a bit deeper. Horses are getting over it good.”

Horse Forever Young runs on the track

Forever Young runs on the track during the morning training for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on April 28, 2024 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Churchill Downs also added an equine safety and integrity veterinarian to help enforce its rules. Fifteen vets from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission joined the track’s vet team to observe horses this week before, during and after training and in their stalls after they arrive.

Jockeys, trainers, exercise riders, track management and vets are members of a new safety management committee. The committee holds meetings on a weekly basis. During the meetings they discuss concerns, and also provide feedback on areas where they see the need for improvement.

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All horses racing at Churchill Downs wear StrideSAFE biometric sensors that detect changes in their gaits to help spot inconsistencies or early signs of a potential developing injury. The track installed a PET unit for diagnostic imaging, only the second such machine permanently located at a U.S. racetrack.

HISA took effect in July 2022 to implement national standards for safety at racetracks, replacing the patchwork rules of the 38 racing states. Its antidoping and medication control program didn’t start until late May 2023, after last year’s Derby and Preakness, where one of trainer Bob Baffert’s horses was injured in a race and was euthanized.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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