By Bill Finley
With the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) having called a veterinary summit to try to get to the bottom of what is going on at Churchill Downs, where 12 horses have died since Apr. 27, HISA CEO Lisa Lazarus said Tuesday that she is hopeful some answers will emerge in the days ahead that will help explain the situation. In the meantime, though, she said her group is not ready to recommend that racing be halted at the home of the Kentucky Derby.
“That is one of the things we are trying to determine through this process,” she said when asked about a potential shutdown. “Given that nothing was flagged or clearly a concern from the surface standpoint, that was not an action we thought was necessary or appropriate at this time.”
Of the 12 horses that have died, seven died as the result of musculoskeletal issues while racing on the main track. Another death occurred on the turf course.
Lazarus said that Dr. Mick Peterson, the executive director of Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory, has been to Churchill a number of times over the last month to examine the racing surface and has not uncovered any problems with it. She said additionally that several jockeys and trainers based at Churchill Downs have been interviewed by the HISA team and that none expressed any issues with the track.
“We have been talking extensively to jockeys and to trainers to try to determine if they believe anything is different with the track,” Lazarus said. “What has been so challenging is that I have not had a single jockey or trainer tell me they believe the track is a factor in these fatalities. That's why we have to approach this from different angles and perspectives.”
She said that Dennis Moore, a track consultant and the long-time track superintendent at Santa Anita, has also been brought in to look at the racing surfaces and to be a “second set of expert eyes.”
Should Moore or anyone else brought in to take part in the veterinary summit come up with reasons why Churchill should cease racing, Lazarus said that HISA does not have the authority to force the track to shut down.
“Under the rules, we do not have the authority to make a racetrack stop racing,” she said. “We can deprive the racetrack from being able to send out their simulcasting signal. I can tell you I have had multiple, long conversations with top-ranked executives at Churchill Downs over the weekend and they are really committed to doing the right thing. My strong view is that if we were to make a recommendation to Churchill Downs to shut down racing that they would accept that recommendation.”
In addition to the inspection of the track surface, those taking part in the veterinary summit–a list that includes veterinarians and other experts representing Churchill Downs, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and HISA–will look at a number of other potential factors that may help explain the cluster of breakdowns. Lazarus said that other issues that will be examined will be veterinary review and veterinary oversight and the possible misuse of medications.
“Because there is no discernable pattern among the fatalities that have occurred at Churchill Downs since late April, veterinary oversight is the most important piece of the puzzle that we have called for,” she said.
It is quite possible that those who have come together under the HISA umbrella to take a look at the rash of breakdowns will not come up with any firm conclusions. Lazarus recognized that that might end up being the case, but she said she was confident that if there are any underlying problems that explain why so many horses have broken down recently at Churchill, the team brought in will find them.
“We have the best people in place with the greatest amount of access and knowledge that are coming together,” she said. “That's why we're having this summit, to make the right decisions going forward. I really trust this group implicitly and that's why I have tasked them with this process. I believe they will come up with the right next steps.”