At Churchill Downs, Humans Failed the Horses Again

In 1991, the horse breeder and owner Arthur Hancock III delivered what he called his “drugs and thugs speech” at an industry symposium, telling his colleagues what they already knew: Too many horses were running on performance-enhancing drugs or were so doped up on anti-inflammatories and painkillers that they were running unnaturally fast and hurting themselves, often fatally.

He offered up the Horse Racing Act of 1992, which called for drug-free racing, uniform rules backed by stiff penalties and a central office to enforce them. Thirty years later, finally, the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority exists, but not without continuing legal challenges and stubborn resistance from its own community.

Now, it needs to do its job.

Enforce the rules. Punish the wrongdoers. Throw them out. Take responsibility for the health and welfare of the human and the equine athletes.

The sport has shown that it can make progress when the outliers are wrangled and pointed toward a common goal. But it took hearings before Congress to do so.

After the filly Eight Belles was injured and euthanized following a second-place finish in the 2008 Derby, the Jockey Club created the Equine Injury Database to analyze how the injuries occurred and how they could be prevented.

In 2009, its first year, thoroughbreds had fatal injuries at the rate of two per 1,000 starts. Last year, there were 1.25 fatalities per 1,000 starts compared to 1.39 fatalities per 1,000 starts in 2021. It was the fourth consecutive year that the rate had decreased and the first time it had been below 1.3 fatalities per 1,000 starts.

Seven horses died on horse racing’s biggest stage in the past week and a half. Not only do animal rights advocates want to know who is responsible, but so does anyone who bets a dollar on the action or merely watches and marvels at a thoroughbred in motion.

It is the horses that are feeding everyone in a multibillion-dollar industry. It is the humans who are letting them down.

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