Churchill Downs will stop racing at its historic Louisville track after this weekend and move the remainder of its meet to Ellis Park. That’s according to a statement Churchill Downs Incorporated released late Friday afternoon.
The report comes after representatives from Churchill Downs met with officials with the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority and the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission earlier this week to discuss what HISA called “the unusually high number” of horse deaths that have occurred at the track. A dozen horses have died at Churchill Downs since late April.
Seven of those incidents occurred in the days leading up to the May 6 Kentucky Derby, the signature event in U.S. horse racing and Kentucky sports betting. One Derby contender, Wild on Ice, was euthanized after suffering an injury during a training session. Two horses were put down after injuries they sustained in races on Derby Day.
Churchill Downs Incorporated CEO Bill Carstanjen said in the statement that the company seeks to “set the highest standard in racing” and takes its commitment to safety seriously.
“What has happened at our track is deeply upsetting and absolutely unacceptable,” he said. “Despite our best efforts to identify a cause for the recent horse injuries, and though no issues have been linked to our racing surfaces or environment at Churchill Downs, we need to take more time to conduct a top-to-bottom review of all of the details and circumstances so that we can further strengthen our surface, safety and integrity protocols.”
In a statement Friday, the KHRC said that all investigations into the fatalities remain active and still await the findings from several necropsies. Once its veterinary team reviews the information, it will be made public.
Less than an hour after Churchill Downs Incorporated issued its statement, HISA issued one of its own saying it recommended suspending racing at the track in order to conduct "additional comprehensive investigations" into the deaths.
"We know that CDI and the KHRC share our goal of ensuring safety above all else, and we appreciate their thoughtfulness and cooperation through these challenging moments," HISA.CEO Lisa Lazarus said. "We will continue to seek answers and work with everyone involved to ensure that horses are running safely at Churchill Downs again in the near future.”
Churchill Downs Owns Track Where Meet Will Resume
The move is reminiscent of one taken by officials at Santa Anita Park four years ago. The Southern California track suspended racing completely for nearly a month after 22 horses died there in a little more than two months.
However, Churchill Downs will be able to continue racing at Ellis Park, a track in Henderson, Ky., it acquired from Laguna Development Corp. last year for $79 million. Ellis Park traditionally hosts summer racing in Kentucky. Its summer meet was set to start on July 7, after Churchill’s meet ended on July 3.
Now, racing will start in Henderson on June 10, after Churchill Downs completes racing on Sunday.
“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.”
Horsemen Question Churchill’s Decision
However, a leading organization of Kentucky owners and trainers raised concerns about the move.
Kentucky HBPA President Rick Hiles said the move was an “unprecedented step,” especially since there’s still no proof of Churchill’s track having problems.
“We all want to find solutions that will improve safety for horses,” Hiles said. “However, we need to discuss allowing trainers and veterinarians to use therapeutic medications that greatly lessen the risk of breakdowns. Drastic steps, such as relocating an active race meet, should only be considered when it is certain to make a difference.”
In the wake of the meeting with HISA and KHRC earlier this week, Churchill Downs held another with horsemen Thursday and unveiled three new measures it would take to improve safety and equine welfare at the track.
Effective immediately, Churchill officials said they would stop paying “track-based incentives” to connections on every finisher in a race. Purse payouts would only go to connections of horses that finished fifth or better in a race.
The track also will limit the number of starts any horse can make to no more than four over a rolling eight-week period. In addition, Churchill Downs would prohibit any entrant in a race if that horse had been beaten by 12 or more lengths in each of their last four races. Such horses could only run if the track’s equine medical director approved their return to the track.
Churchill Downs said the measures it put in place will remain in effect for the rest of its meet at Ellis and Ellis’ meet that will run through Aug. 27.
The Belmont Stakes, which is the third and final leg of the Triple Crown Races will take place on June 10th.