A horse and jockey come down a straightaway during an early morning workout ahead of the the Breeders’ Cup World Championship at Keeneland Race Course on Thursday in Lexington, Ky. Mark Humphrey/Associated Press


This time a year ago, thoroughbred racing was fighting for its very existence. Over 30 horses had died at Santa Anita Park in California, including Mongolian Groom in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. PETA was protesting. The national media was investigating. Lawmakers were asking questions.

In reaction, an industry that so long had failed to get its act together actually tried to get its act together. Changes were made. New guidelines were introduced. Tougher restrictions on medications were implemented. Last November, several racing entities joined to form the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition.

So with the Breeders’ Cup World Championships set to take place Friday and Saturday at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky, have the reforms made a difference?

The early numbers say yes. After 37 equine fatalities, including 20 racing fatalities, last year at Santa Anita, the death number has dropped to five racing fatalities this year. Its fatality rate has gone from 3.01 per 1,000 starts last year to 0.98 this year, well below the 1.53 national rate.

“Last year, we set a course to reform the sport of horse racing for the next generation,” Aidan Butler of the Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita, told Thoroughbred Daily News. “This year, we are seeing the results of the hard work everyone has put into this effort.”

Del Mar in California saw only one summer meet fatality for a ratio of 0.42 per 1,000 starters. Santa Anita completed its recent 16-day autumn meet without a single racing or training fatality over the one month and 20-day training period.

“We’ve seen the effects at Santa Anita in the last meet they had,” trainer Graham Motion said Wednesday at Keeneland. “I know at last year’s Breeders’ Cup everybody did a fantastic job. I’ve never had my horses more scrutinized and that’s the way it should be.”

Keeneland enjoyed similar improvement. Last year, the track experienced nine fatalities out of 2,807 starters for a 3.21 per 1,000 average, up from a 1.77 in 2018. As a result, the track took a hard look at what it was doing and hired Dr. Stuart E. Brown II, a 30-year veteran of Hagyard Equine Medical, as its Equine Safety Director.

According to Keeneland’s website, during the track’s 2020 Fall Meet, from Oct. 1 through Oct. 24, a total of 14,859 horses were on the track, including 1,397 timed workouts and 1,304 starters, with just one reported indecent, which occurred Oct. 5.

“Change is always a little hard to accept sometimes for some people,” trainer Mark Casse said Wednesday. “Ultimately what’s best for the horse is what’s best for the industry. You’ve seen not just in the Breeders’ Cup but other places where the safety record has gotten much better.”

“It’s a forward progression, I think,” said Motion.

That is continuing. For example, the 70 2-year-olds who were entered in this week’s five Breeders’ Cup races restricted to juveniles will not be allowed to receive Lasix on race day. According to the Daily Racing Form, only five previously had race day administration of Lasix. The plan is to have no Breeders’ Cup horses on Lasix in 2021.

“Which I really like,” said trainer Kenny McPeek on Monday. “I think we need to have a split system. The graded stakes races should be medication-free, but the average everyday horse running at the B tracks that fill those cards, there are cases where those horses need help.”

Overall, said McPeek, “As a sport, we need national rules, we really do.”

That’s the next step. The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, which would establish a control authority for developing and administrating an anti-doping and medication control program, unanimously passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Sept. 29 and forwarded to the Senate, where it awaits action.

“(That) would be a watershed moment for our industry,” said Drew Fleming, CEO of the Breeders’ Cup. “That would take the current structure of 38 state regulations and it would be one uniform, central authority system, which would further improve integrity.”

In the meantime, if you go by the numbers, compared to a year ago, the sport appears to be moving in the right direction.

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