By Bill Finley
Reeling from a rash of breakdowns that has developed into what can only be described as a crisis for the track and for the entire sport, track management at Churchill Downs Incorporated (CDI) announced Friday that racing will be suspended at Churchill after Sunday's card and that the remainder of the scheduled meet will be run at Ellis Park.
The first day of racing at Ellis will be held on June 10. The Churchill-at-Ellis meet will end on July 3.
Racing at Churchill will be held as scheduled this Saturday and Sunday.
“The team at Churchill Downs takes great pride in our commitment to safety and strives to set the highest standard in racing, consistently going above and beyond the regulations and policies that are required,” said Bill Carstanjen, CEO of CDI in a statement. “What has happened at our track is deeply upsetting and absolutely unacceptable. 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.”
Carstanjen's statement continued: “In addition to our commitment to providing the safest racing environment for our participants, we have an immense responsibility as the economic engine of the Thoroughbred industry in Kentucky which provides jobs and income for thousands of families every day. 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.”
Shortly after the Churchill statement was released, the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) put out a release of its own, saying that it had recommended that the meet be suspended. HISA does not have the authority to close a meet down but can prevent a track from sending out its simulcasting signal if it feels that track is not making their best effort to deal with breakdowns and other safety issues.
“HISA's highest priority is the safety and wellbeing of equine and human athletes competing under our jurisdiction,” said HISA CEO Lisa Lazarus. “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. We know that CDI and the KHRC [Kentucky Horse Racing Commision] share our goal of ensuring safety above all else, and we appreciate their thoughtfulness and cooperation through these challenging moments. 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.”
The shift to Ellis was made despite widespread agreement among trainers, jockeys and by experts brought in to examine the racing surface that there were no issues with either the main track or the turf course. Of the 12 horses who have died, seven died in races run over the main track. There was also a fatality in a turf race and another during training hours. Wild On Ice (Tapizar), a contender for the GI Kentucky Derby, was the first fatality when he broke down during morning training on Apr. 27. Three other horses died due to causes other than musculoskeletal injuries.
Considering the widespread opinion that there is nothing wrong with the track, Rick Hiles, President of the Kentucky HBPA, came out with his own statement Friday in which he questioned the decision.
“Horsemen question the purpose of this unprecedented step, especially without conclusive evidence that there is a problem with the racetrack at Churchill Downs. We all want to find solutions that will improve safety for horses. 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.”
The HISA statement also referenced the findings that there is nothing amiss with the racetrack.
“Track surface expert Dennis Moore completed his HISA-commissioned review of the Churchill Downs Racetrack and reported his findings to HISA earlier today,” the statement read. “After conducting his own inspection of the surface and reviewing data collected by Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory (RSTL) and Churchill Downs, he reported there were no primary areas for concern and has verified that the various track metrics analyzed are consistent with previous years.”
The decision to move to Ellis was approved Friday by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC).
“Today, Churchill Downs requested a voluntary move of their operations to Ellis Park for the remainder of their spring meet,” KHRC spokesperson Kristin Voskuhl said. “Out of an abundance of caution for the safety of all racing participants, the KHRC approved the move. The KHRC is working closely with Churchill Downs and the Horseracing Integrity & Safety Authority on continuing investigations into the recent equine fatalities.”
The condition book for the Churchill meet and the stakes schedule will remain unchanged upon the shift to Ellis.
Last September, Churchill announced that it had bought Ellis from Enchantment Holdings for $79 million in cash. Following the Churchill-at-Ellis meet, racing will continue at Ellis. The 2023 Ellis meet runs from July 7 through Sunday, Aug. 27.
The move to Ellis will be an inconvenience for horsemen. Ellis is roughly 103 miles from Louisville. Despite that, Churchill-based trainer Dale Romans said he understood why Churchill made the move.
“I think it is overkill, but better to have overkill than to not pay attention to the breakdowns,” he said. “Yes, it surprised me when I first heard about it. But we are talking about a major corporate company and they don't want to keep going with things being the way they are only to figure out later that it was the racetrack. You can't execute Churchill for trying to do the right thing.”
When faced with similar problems in 2019, Santa Anita shut down its meet for about three weeks before resuming racing.