Churchill Downs, Inc. Relocates Racing Amid Horse Deaths And Calls To Suspend Operations

On Friday, June 2 Churchill Downs, Inc. (CDI) released a statement that said the company will, “suspend racing operations at Churchill Downs Racetrack (“Churchill Downs”) beginning June 7, 2023, through the remainder of the Spring Meet, scheduled to run to July 3. Live racing at Churchill Downs will be conducted as scheduled this weekend on Saturday, June 3 and Sunday, June 4. The remainder of the race meet will be relocated to Ellis Park Racing & Gaming (“Ellis Park”) in Henderson, Kentucky, beginning on Saturday, June 10.” Ellis Park is also owned by CDI. 

The move comes after a request by the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA), and repeated pleas by activist groups and public pressure to make changes after the deaths of 12 horses at the track in this season alone. 

HISA released their statement on the same day as CDI released theirs. “The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) has recommended to Churchill Downs Incorporated (CDI) that racing at Churchill Downs Racetrack be temporarily suspended to allow for additional comprehensive investigations into the cause of recent equine fatalities at the track; CDI has agreed with and accepted this recommendation.”

In the CDI statement, CEO Bill Carstanjen said Churchill Downs is committed to providing a safe environment for participants, and acknowledges that they have an “immense responsibility” as the driver of the thoroughbred industry in Kentucky. 

“By relocating the remainder of the meet to Ellis Park, we are able to maintain this industry ecosystem with only minor disruption. We are grateful to the Kentucky horsemen for their support, resiliency and continued partnership as we collectively work to find answers during this time,” Carstanjen continued. 

HISA worked with CDI and The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission to evaluate the Churchill Downs racetrack.

In the evaluation of Churchill Downs racetrack, “track surface expert” Dennis Moore graded the track on these criteria: (from the HISA statement)

  • Cushioning: The consistency of the track was measured at every 1/8th Pole on the inside and outside racing lanes by RSTL using the Orono Biomechanical Surface Tester (OBST). The findings found the track was consistent at the various measurement points around the track and compared to previous pre-race meet inspections performed by RSTL.
  • Cushion Layer: Data that was collected by RSTL’s ground penetrating radar (GPR), which measures up to depths of one and half feet deep, similarly did not identify any anomalies or causes for concern.
  • Daily Measurements: Moore verified Churchill Downs’ daily measurements and RSTL’s pre-meet inspection, which included a time-domain reflectometer (TDR) moisture reading instrument to measure the moisture and manual probing for cushion depth. He reported that the track was within the expected measurement ranges around the track and as compared to previous years.
  • Surface Grade: Moore and RSTL performed surface grade measurements together to verify the percent crossfall of surface was similar to the pre-meet inspection performed by RSTL.
  • Composition: The dirt’s surface samples collected at multiple locations around the track were sent to RSTL’s laboratory in Lexington, KY and returned consistent with previous years.

“HISA’s highest priority is the safety and wellbeing of equine and human athletes competing under our jurisdiction,” said HISA CEO Lisa Lazarus in  the release. “Given that we have been so far unable to draw conclusions about the cause of the recent equine fatalities at Churchill Downs, and therefore have been unable to recommend or require interventions that we felt would adequately ensure the safety of the horses running there, we made the decision to recommend to CDI that they temporarily suspend racing at Churchill Downs while additional reviews continue.”

LEO reported in May about the heightened incidents of horse deaths. In the time since the week of Derby, groups like PETA and Animal Wellness Action made several requests to both Churchill Downs, Inc. and HISA to suspend or otherwise address issues at the facility. 

PETA went as far as sending out videos of horse fatalities on the track. We are putting a face on these horrible deaths because every one of the 12 horses was an individual,” says PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo in a release. “PETA urges HISA to put horses’ welfare first by immediately halting racing and timed workouts at Churchill Downs until the cause or causes of these deaths can be determined.”

Churchill Downs

Wayne Pacelle of Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy said this relocation is not enough to remedy the loss of horses’ lives. 

“If the track surface was the singular cause of the rash of horse deaths at Churchill Downs, changing the racing venue might make sense. But it’s apparent that there’s more at work here than track surface threats,” said Pacelle in a release. “We renew our request that Churchill Downs suspend its racing schedule until there is a proper forensic analysis of the horse deaths and a comprehensive plan to remediate future deaths. This is a response, but it feels like a shell-game response.”

In a statement to the Courier Journal, Louisville Tourism’s Rosanne Mastin said that this year the economic impact from the Kentucky Derby was $401,866,455. It was an increase of $41 million over last year. 

“The show cannot just go on, and the leadership of the track should hit the pause button for the well-being of the horses and of the industry itself,” added Louisvillian Joseph Grove, director of communications for Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy in a release.

According to Animal Wellness Action, the transfer of Churchill Downs activities only applies to live racing and does not extend to simulcasting of other races from other racetracks.