Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey and his wife, Alison, have been fielding messages from friends outside of horse racing about the spate of deaths at Churchill Downs leading up to and on Kentucky Derby day.
“They’re texting, ‘What’s going on?’” McGaughey said. “They don’t want to hear that (is happening), so that’s something we’re going to have to address.”
The Derby was the second most-watched sporting event of 2023 behind the Super Bowl. Viewers heard about the deaths of seven horses in 10 days at the track before watching Mage win the race. He's heading to Maryland to run in the Preakness Stakes, with the chance to win the Triple Crown. But the recent fatalities in Kentucky have created lingering questions for the sport and even for the trainers confident in their horses set to run May 20 at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.
“You’re not going to be perfect every time you run, but I do think it’s very concerning about what went on at Churchill that week,” said McGaughey, who will have his first Preakness starter since 2013. “I don’t know that we’ll ever get to the bottom of it. But seven deaths in a week and they had three at Keeneland (in Lexington) that made it 10 deaths that we know about in a month, and that’s too many. I don’t think it’s anything we should keep in the closet. I think we need to be very transparent about what’s going on.”
National Thoroughbred Racing Association president and CEO Tom Rooney called this stretch “challenging for those of us who care about our sport.” He said while the industry will have to see what happened to two horses trained by Saffie Joseph Jr. that died unexpectedly of unknown causes, work must continue on track safety, screening and other factors that can contribute to the fatal musculoskeletal injuries that may have caused the other five deaths.
“We’ll always try to get the best possible equation for having the tracks be safe,” Rooney told The Associated Press by phone Friday. “I have a responsibility — our industry has a responsibility — to the fans that clearly love our sport or wouldn’t have tuned in but also for the athletes and the jockeys that we’re making sure with modern technology and racetrack safety and antidoping and fairness that we have something that we can be proud of.”
Pimlico will host the 148th edition of the Preakness. According to the Equine Injury Database, one horse died among the 1,510 who raced there last year, less than half the national average of 1.25 per 1,000 starts — the lowest rate since they began tracking in 2009.
Rooney said it might speak to the soundness of the old track. He said industry leaders don't want a repeat of the situation at Churchill Downs. The seven deaths there were far above the norm.
“Bad timing, unfortunate circumstances, who knows?" said Steve Asmussen, who has the most career wins of any trainer and could have two horses in the Preakness. “Intense pressure. There’s just a tremendous amount of variables that I think went into (that) week.”
Some medications given to horses can have negative effects that contribute to breakdowns. Regulations have varied from state to state. However, the Horseracing Safety and Integrity Authority's antidoping and medication regulations, which aim to standardize rules across the U.S., go into effect on May 22 — two days after the Preakness.
Lisa Lazarus, CEO of HISA, said Friday the authority will conduct its own independent investigation into the deaths beyond the Equine Catastrophic Injury Review being conducted by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. That is expected to include review of each horse's records, Churchill Downs' recent fatality rates and racetrack maintenance, plus interviews with veterinarians and management officials.
Churchill Downs does not make fatality statistics publicly available, and Kentucky does not have mandatory reporting requirements like New York and California.
“Our first priority is to support efforts to better understand, to the degree possible, the root causes of the deaths last week at Churchill Downs,” Lazarus said in an email detailing HISA's response. “The findings associated with these investigations will also be recorded and aggregated along with other industrywide data for in-depth analysis to eventually establish a baseline for determining with greater clarity factors that may contribute to risk of injury.”
Five horses were scratched from the Derby for a variety of reasons. They included favorite Forte, who won't run in the Preakness because trainer Todd Pletcher was recently suspended for 10 days for the colt's positive drug test at Saratoga in September.
Asmussen said his Derby horse, Disarm, came out of the Derby just fine. Similarly, fellow trainer Brad Cox was proud to have 21 horses run at Churchill during the week with no issues.
Cox said all he can do is his best “to send out a happy, healthy horse" and hopes to do the same with Perform in the Preakness. Still, he recognizes why there's some trepidation among the public when so many horses die at the same track in a short period.
“I understand that it is a concern from the racing fan and just someone that doesn’t really know much about the sport that’s looking at it as a concern — the perception and kind of how it looks,” Cox said. “It is concerning.”
Two-time Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert will have a horse in the Preakness again after confirming National Treasure is heading to Pimlico. He was unable to enter one last year because of a Kentucky suspension that Maryland honored and has been banned from the Derby in 2022 and '23 because of a Churchill Downs suspension.
Baffert is tied for the most Preakness wins with seven, the most recent coming in 2018 with Justify.
This story has been corrected to show that Churchill Downs does participate in the Equine Injury Database but does not make fatality data publicly available.