Animal rights groups seek answers on horse deaths

Published 11:15 am Saturday, June 10, 2023


After a dozen thoroughbred horse deaths this year at Churchill Downs in Louisville, two groups, Animal Wellness Action and The Center for a Human Economy, called on the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority on Tuesday to adopt rules to suspend trainers whose horses die in competition.

“When young, healthy horses die in competition, that should trigger more than expressions of sadness. It should trigger mandatory suspensions,” said Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Wellness Action. “Trainers must take responsibility for the care of their horses and accept responsibility when the animals die in competition. It is not normal for a three-year-old or a six-year-old horse to die in a non-violent sport that involves a one-mile sprint.”

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Churchill Downs officials decided Wednesday to suspend racing operations and move the remainder of its spring meet to Ellis Park in Henderson so a complete review of safety and surface protocols.

Racing will continue at Churchill Downs through Sunday before shifting to the CDI-owned racing and gaming facility in Henderson beginning June 10. Ellis Park’s meet was scheduled to start July 7, four days after the scheduled close at Churchill Downs, and run through Aug. 27.

Under law enacted by Congress, the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority has the responsibility to impose a wide range of track safety standards, and the two groups say HISA clearly has the authority to prevent dangerous trainers from putting more horses in competition.

They note that when authorities saw Bob Baffert’s horse Havnameltdown die in competition in the race card preceding the running of the Preakness in Baltimore, Baffert’s entry for that Triple Crown race, National Treasure, should have been scratched from competition.

HISA should take similar action with trainer Rody R. Rodriguez, they state. He has seen four horses under his care die this year, with three deaths occurring at Aqueduct and another at Belmont Park, which this weekend hosts the third leg of the Triple Crown.

There were two deaths of Rodriguez’s horses just last week, with 3-year-old Midnight Empress injured and euthanized just days before 6-year-old Chaysenbryn suffered a right front leg injury and was then euthanized at Belmont Park.

“When trainers understand they’ll be suspended if their horses die in competition, then they will take precautions to prevent that terrible outcome,” Pacelle pointed out. “Now there are lamentations without consequences. Young and fit horses dying in competition is no longer acceptable in American racing.”

He adds that the recent spate of 12 deaths at Churchill Downs and Baffert’s celebrating a Preakness win just hours after one of his horses died dramatize the problem.

The two groups urge:

• Robust enforcement of the race-day doping prohibitions, with meaningful national suspensions and other penalties for violators of the rules.

• Banning the use of the whip in American racing.

• Developing a plan to hold trainers and owners accountable to reduce death rates for racing horses to levels approaching zero, with appropriate national suspensions for trainers whose horses die at the tracks.

— Staff reports and Kentucky Today contributed to this article.