Churchill Downs is suspending racing operations June 7 and moving the remainder of its 2023 Spring Meet to Ellis Park following 12 horse death at the famous Louisville track during the past six weeks.
Races will be held Saturday and Sunday at Churchill, then roughly resume 134 miles west at the Henderson, Kentucky, track from June 10 through July 3.
The move of the Spring Meet, first reported by Horse Racing Nationfollow multiple emergency meetings this week between Churchill and the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA), which said in a statement Friday it recommended the track suspend races.
A closed-door summit was held Tuesday between the state and Churchill’s regulatory veterinarians and veterinarians with HISA. Track surface expert Dennis Moore completed an inspection Wednesday, after which HISA said he reported “no primary areas for concern” and that “the various track metrics analyzed are consistent with previous years.”
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Mick Peterson, director of the Racetrack Safety Program for Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory, told The Courier Journal that the agency also conducted a review of the track this week and found it was “consistent” with testing done prior to Kentucky Derby 149.
With Friday’s announcement of the move to Ellis, Churchill Downs Inc. (CDI) CEO Bill Carstanjen said more time is needed “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.” He said the move will “maintain this industry ecosystem with only minor disruption.”
“We know that CDI and the (Kentucky Horse Racing Commission) share our goal of ensuring safety above all else, and we appreciate their thoughtfulness and cooperation through these challenging moments,” HISA said in Friday’s statement. “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.”
Carstanjen expressed gratitude toward Kentucky horsemen “for their support, resilience and continued partnership as we collectively work to find answers during this time.”
The president of the Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association Rick Hiles, however, said the group is questioning the move, “especially without conclusive evidence that there is a problem with the racetrack.”
“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.”
One horse owner who spoke with The Courier Journal on the condition of anonymity before the announcement said, “It seems odd that they would implement new safety precautions and announce those to the horseman but the next day there is talk of moving to Ellis Park a month early.”
“We wake up every day dealing with change,” Moquett told The Courier Journal via text. “As long as we can take care of the horses, I’m OK.”
Chauncey Morris, executive director of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association (KTA), echoed that sentiment.
“We support Churchill Downs’ request to transfer remaining dates to Ellis Park,” Morris said. “Our horsemen and owners can adapt to enable a thorough review.”
Churchill Downs called a final meeting with HISA on Thursday before announcing new safety measures at the track, and on Friday it said they will continue to be enforced when the Spring Meet moves to Ellis Park.
Those measures include:
- Horses will be restricted to four starts during a rolling eight-week period.
- Horses will have ineligibility standards for poor performance: if a horse is beaten by more than 12 lengths in five consecutive starts, it will be ineligible to race at Churchill Downs until approved to resume by the Equine Medical Director.
- Pause of track-based incentives including trainer start bonuses and payout allocations to every race finisher. Only the top five finishes will receive payouts. Churchill Downs is talking with horsemen about what will happen to the funds previously given to lower-placed finishers.
Of the 12 deaths at Churchill during the past six weeks, nine were breakdowns on the track. Two horses trained by Saffie Joseph Jr. − Parents Pride and Chasing Artie − suffered sudden deaths four days apart, and the other occurred when Code of Kings flipped multiple times in the paddock and was euthanized after suffering a broken neck. Code of Kings’ trainer, Tim Glyshaw, told the Daily Racing Form the 3-year-old gelding became fixed on party lights at a nearby DJ booth.
Joseph was suspended indefinitely from Churchill in the wake of Parents Pride and Chasing Artie’s deaths. Necropsies were performed on both horses at the University of Kentucky Veterinary Diagnostics Lab. The release of the results of the necropsies has been delayed in part because of the ongoing investigations into all the horse deaths.
Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy, said in a statement Friday “it’s apparent that there’s more at work here than track surface threats.” He called for Churchill to suspend racing “until there is a proper forensic analysis of the horse deaths and a comprehensive plan to remedy future deaths.”
“This is a response,” Pacelle said, “but it feels like a shell-game response,”
Ellis Park opened in 1922 and has a 6,000-seat grandstand compared to Churchill Downs, which hosted more than 150,000 spectators at Kentucky Derby 149.
In addition to hosting the home stretch of Churchill’s Spring Meet, Ellis Park is also scheduled to hold races from July 7 through Aug. 27.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism