Horse racing at crossroads after latest spate of deaths

Preakness contender First Mission is groomed after working out on the Pimlico track Tuesday morning, May 16, 2023, in Baltimore, in preparation for Saturday's Preakness Stakes horse race. (Jerry Jackson/The Baltimore Sun via AP)
Preakness contender First Mission is groomed after working out on the Pimlico track Tuesday morning, May 16, 2023, in Baltimore, in preparation for Saturday's Preakness Stakes horse race. (Jerry Jackson/The Baltimore Sun via AP)

BALTIMORE -- Brad Cox sent 21 horses he trains to Churchill Downs in the days leading up to the Kentucky Derby and all came back from their races healthy with no problems.

Still, Cox is worried. Seven horses died in a span of 10 days at and around the famous track, thrusting horse racing into a familiar, negative spotlight during Triple Crown season. The sport, which by some measures is as popular as ever, is facing intense scrutiny over the health of its animal athletes.

"The sales are strong, and the purses are strong, people are still involved -- hopefully we can keep it going," Cox said this week while preparing for the Preakness. "I think people are doing a good job of trying to keep their horses sound, healthy, happy and performing well. That's the main thing. I've got a lot of questions about Derby week and what all happened there."

He's not alone. Industry leaders say racing is at a critical juncture, even though horse deaths are at their lowest number since they began being tracked, money is flowing and new national medication and anti-doping rules are set to take effect next week. The hope is to clean up the sport, making it fairer for those involved and perhaps more acceptable to skeptics.

"When it comes to passion about the horse and all of that, we've got a really vibrant industry," Horseracing Safety and Integrity Authority CEO Lisa Lazarus told The Associated Press. "We're at a crossroads because of essentially what happened in the leadup to the Derby weekend, on Derby day, and obviously incidents over the last few years that shows that there's nothing more important for the sustainability of our industry than ensuring that we're taking the best care possible of our horses and the people who ride them."

The authority (HISA) is a federally mandated agency established to set uniform regulations across the U.S. Its racetrack safety program has been in place since July 1, and the Antidoping and Medication Control Program that was delayed and challenged in court is set to start Monday.

In the big picture, it may already be working.

According to the Jockey Club's Equine Injury Database, the rate of 1.25 fatalities per 1,000 starts (or fewer than 13 horses out of each 10,000 who race) in 2022 is the lowest since record-keeping of that number began in 2009. According to University of Bristol professor Tim Parkin, the final six months of last year was "the safest six-month period on record."

A task force spurred by the deaths at Aqueduct more than a decade ago led to a series of reforms in the Mid-Atlantic region that reduced fatalities there by 35%. New safety measures have also been put in place since the deaths at Santa Anita four years ago.

Racing fatalities at Santa Anita are down 79% from 2019 to 2022. They're down more than 85% at Pimlico, where Kentucky Derby winner Mage on Saturday is favored to win the second Triple Crown race of the year.

"If we can make the sport stronger, if we can make the product better by wrapping it in safety and integrity, there's no question that it's going to prosper financially," Lazarus said. "I think we're really going to be able to show that kind of secure industry where the public has trust and feels good that the horses are taken well care of, it's going to mean more people invest in horse racing."

  photo  Kentucky Derby winner Mage is walked around the Stakes Barn before a workout at Pimlico, Tuesday morning, May 16, 2023, in Baltimore, in preparation for Saturday's Preakness Stakes horse race. (Jerry Jackson/The Baltimore Sun via AP)
 
 
  photo  Preakness contender Blazing Sevens runs on the Pimlico track Tuesday morning, May 16, 2023, in Baltimore, in preparation for Saturday's Preakness Stakes horse race. (Jerry Jackson/The Baltimore Sun via AP)
 
 
  photo  Preakness contender Blazing Sevens heads out on the Pimlico track Tuesday morning, May 16, 2023, in Baltimore, in preparation for Saturday's Preakness Stakes horse race. (Jerry Jackson/The Baltimore Sun via AP)
 
 
  photo  Preakness contender First Mission runs on the Pimlico track Tuesday morning, May 16, 2023, in Baltimore, in preparation for Saturday's Preakness Stakes horse race. (Jerry Jackson/The Baltimore Sun via AP)
 
 
  photo  Preakness contender First Mission runs on the Pimlico track Tuesday morning, May 16, 2023, in Baltimore, in preparation for Saturday's Preakness Stakes horse race. (Jerry Jackson/The Baltimore Sun via AP)
 
 
  photo  Fans on a tour of Pimlico take photos of Kentucky Derby winner Mage as he is walked around the Stakes Barn before a workout Tuesday morning, May 16, 2023, in Baltimore, in preparation for Saturday's Preakness Stakes horse race. (Jerry Jackson/The Baltimore Sun via AP)
 
 
  photo  Kentucky Derby winner Mage pauses as he is walked around the Stakes Barn before working out on the Pimlico track Tuesday morning, May 16, 2023, in Baltimore, in preparation for Saturday's Preakness Stakes horse race. (Jerry Jackson/The Baltimore Sun via AP)