Tim Sullivan: Derby Day Deaths Underscore Racing’s Continued Risks

The morning was marked by the scratch of the morning line favorite.  The afternoon was tinged with tragedy, two horses dying during the Kentucky Derby undercard.

The evening ended amid joy and widespread relief, the improbable Mage winning America’s most prestigious race with a strong finish and without further fatalities.   

For the moment, the sport of kings could allow itself to exhale, spared the nightmare scenario of another catastrophic injury on its biggest stage, a nightmare made real and agonizingly vivid in 2008 with Eight Belles.      

But that reprieve is surely temporary, as the systemic issues of thoroughbred racing remain unsolved and the most promising reforms continue to meet stubborn, short-sighted resistance. This is a sport often unable to get out of its own way, one that confronts its existential challenges by complaining about the costs of regulation, by litigating the constitutionality of additional oversight and by ignoring evidence of demonstrable improvements such as synthetic surfaces. 

This is an industry whose executives talk a lot about transparency until trouble starts.

Seven horses died at Churchill Downs in the 10 days preceding Saturday’s Derby, but the races continued without interruption or, arguably, sufficient introspection. It felt as if those in charge were crossing their fingers instead of crossing their T’s and dotting their I’s, lacking the vigilance of animal welfare advocates who responded in real time. 

“Churchill Downs is a killing field. . .” PETA Vice President Kathy Guillermo said in a statement issued more than an hour before Derby 149. “They should play ‘Taps’ at the Derby instead of ‘My Old Kentucky Home.’ “

Efforts to make racing safer are generally sincere but almost invariably half-hearted. Though the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database shows synthetics have experienced a lower rate of catastrophic injuries than dirt surfaces in each of the last 14 years, track operators overwhelmingly answer to the interests of breeders and bettors at the expense of animals.

Churchill Downs issued a statement late Saturday acknowledging the deaths of Chloe’s Dream and Freezing Point earlier in the day, pledging an “unwavering” commitment to “the health and well-being of equine safety,” and asserting that it had detected “no discernible pattern” in the fatal injuries.

At another track, on another day, racing might have been suspended pending a thorough investigation, as occurred last month after two horses were euthanized at Maryland’s Laurel Park. But as Bob Baffert has learned, and NBC would certainly concur, no one messes with the Run for the Roses.  

“The equine fatalities leading to this year’s Kentucky Derby are a sobering reminder of the urgent need to mobilize our industry in order to explore every avenue possible and effectively minimize any avoidable risk in the sport,” the statement said.

“Despite our determination to continually improve upon the highest industry standards, there is more to be done and we will rigorously work to understand what caused these incidents and build upon our existing data, programs and practices to better understand what has been incredibly difficult for us to witness and accept this week.”

Institutional anxiety was reflected in state veterinarian Nick Smith’s visit to Todd Pletcher’s barn Saturday morning. Despite the vigorous protests of owner Mike Repole, Smith scratched Derby favorite Forte, apparently out of concern over a  bruised hoof.

Smith declined comment to reporters observing the exchange on the backside. Jamie Eads, executive director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, did not respond to an e-mail query seeking clarification. 

“They acknowledged that he had made improvement this week, but they just didn’t feel like he was 100%,” Pletcher told NBC. “It’s a tough call. Obviously, we are in an environment (where) scrutiny is super high. I’m not sure in some years it would have been an issue. But this year, it was.”

Forte beat Mage by a length with a late surge in last month’s Florida Derby, and had been the 3-1 morning line favorite for the Derby. For Repole, the blow was particularly bitter since he had lost another strong Derby contender to a late scratch in 2011 (Uncle Mo).

Yet if Forte was scrutinized more closely Saturday than he might have been in previous years, the thought of him breaking down with a pre-existing injury was unthinkable. Those who would run unnecessary risks risk running themselves and their sport out of business.

“It’s a very difficult subject, especially in the climate of 2023,” said Mage’s part-owner, Ramiro Restrepo. “We are very sensitive to these unfortunate instances.

“All I can say is, we do our best to take care of our horses. We treat them better than we treat our children. And we had full confidence in the soundness of our horse.”

Barring a setback, Mage can continue to chase the Triple Crown at the Preakness. More importantly, he’s still alive.