Horse Death Investigation Comes Up Empty-Handed

Twelve horses died at Churchill Downs this spring, but the federally established oversight group that investigated the deaths identified no one cause of death and recommended more action and study to decrease risk at the home of the Kentucky Derby.

Improved veterinarian screening and the formation of a blue-ribbon committee to investigate synthetic surface solutions were two other recommendations made by the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) report.

Seven horses died in the days running up to the 149th Derby on May 6, including two on the undercard, and five more died in the weeks later, prompting that action. HISA called an emergency summit immediately and, after conferring with professionals in the field, veterinarians, and trainers, suggested postponing the meet.

HISA CEO Lisa Lazarus stated on a Zoom call that the inquiry uncovered a variety of causes even though Tuesday’s analysis concluded there was no one factor in any of the locations.

An expert on racetrack surfaces, Dennis Moore, found no link between the track at Churchill Downs and the fatal injuries suffered by certain horses.

None of the horses tested positive for illegal drugs, and necropsies could not find any apparent pattern or underlying cause. Many counties, including Kentucky, have not reliably reported fatalities, necropsy results, or injuries to HISA within the time frame mandated by the organization. Reviewing training-related injuries was emphasized as something to do better and include.

While the HISA inquiry uncovered a wide range of ailments among the dead horses, it found that four of them suffered fractures while competing on the dirt or turf track. Two horses racing on dirt suddenly died from exercise-related causes, and two others had soft-tissue injuries.

Veterinarian Susan Stover’s assessment of high-velocity exercise recognized the risk of harm from high-intensity activity and recurrent overuse injuries.

While specialists in the field reported no problems with the racing tracks in July, the historic track changed, such as installing new track surface maintenance equipment and increasing its monitoring and care for the horses. According to a press release, track vets will get more funding to provide equine specialty care in preparation for race inspections and entrant screening.