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Kentucky Derby implements safety changes following deadly year at track

12 horses died in a five-week stretch surrounding the 2023 Kentucky Derby.
Kentucky Derby Horse Racing
Posted at 1:32 PM, Apr 29, 2024

Kentucky Derby organizers said they have implemented safety changes after controversy has roiled two recent Derbys.

Last week, the Kentucky Derby said it invested more in surface management, increased veteran oversight, established an oversight committee, and implemented new safety technology. The Derby has also enforced new rules, including requiring horses to be at Churchill Downs one week before the running and limiting the number of starts a horse can have in the eight weeks leading up to the Derby.

Last year, 12 horses had to be euthanized at Churchill Downs in the weeks surrounding the Derby.

The deaths prompted Churchill Downs to suspend live racing for three months amid an internal safety review.

A fan looks on wearing her derby hat during the 137th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.

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Among the three most popular surfaces, dirt courses, like the one the Kentucky Derby uses, have the highest rate of fatal injuries, according to the Equine Injury Database.

Churchill Downs has both a dirt and turf track.

The Equine Injury Databasereported that in 2023, there were 1.65 fatal injuries for every 1,000 starts on dirt among 3-year-old horses. On turf tracks, there were 1.02 fatal injuries per 1,000 starts. Synthetic turf had 0.52 fatal injuries per 1,000 starts.

The data noted a slight increase in racing-related fatalities in 2023.

"There was a slight increase in the rate of fatality from 2022 to 2023 of 5.6%," Tim Parkin, professor at the University of Bristol's School of Veterinary Sciences, said in a press release. "However, this is not statistically significant, and we are encouraged by the low numbers in 2023 that the industry is still headed in the right direction with regard to keeping its horses safe."

Last year was not the first time the Kentucky Derby was embroiled in controversy. Trainer Bob Baffert was suspended after the original 2021 Kentucky Derby champion Medina Spirit was stripped of his title when a doping test found an illegal steroid in his system.

Medina Spirit continued racing after the Derby, but died of a heart attack in December 2021.

Baffert was originally suspended for two years but had his suspension extended by a year, including this year's Derby.

The Kentucky Derby has published a full list of its changes on its website. 

Another significant change for the Kentucky Derby: The purse increased by $2 million to $5 million this year. Fierceness opened Monday as the Derby's favorite with 5-2 odds.