Churchill Downs, one of the most famous horse racing tracks in the world and the home of the Kentucky Derby, announced Friday it is suspending racing following 12 horse deaths, including seven in the run-up to the sport’s premier race last month.

The decision followed a recommendation by the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, the newly installed watchdog overseeing thoroughbred racing, which said time was needed to investigate the spate of horse deaths that marred the Kentucky Derby and have persisted since.

The suspension is a historic move for the fabled, 148-year-old track and signals a potential sea change in the regulation of horse racing. HISA, created by a federal act in 2020, was fully implemented late last month.

“What has happened at our track is deeply upsetting and absolutely unacceptable,” Bill Carstanjen, CEO of Churchill Downs Inc., the track’s parent company, said Friday in a statement. “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.”

CDI acknowledged in the statement the decision was “in alignment with a recommendation from HISA,” to allow for a “review of all safety and surface protocols and integrity measures.”

Races scheduled for this weekend at Churchill Downs will go on as planned, but the remainder of the track’s spring meet, which runs through July 3, will take place at Ellis Park Racing, another track in Kentucky also owned by CDI.


After seven horses died in the week before the Kentucky Derby on May 6, CDI called the deaths “anomalies,” indefinitely suspended a trainer of two of the horses and vowed to find the cause. But five more horses have died since the Derby, the first jewel in racing’s Triple Crown, including two that broke down while racing last weekend.

HISA said Friday “no cohesive explanation has been identified for this unusually high number of fatalities.”

HISA CEO Lisa Lazarus said in a statement that because the authority “has 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.”

The decision came after track surface expert Dennis Moore examined the track Friday and could find “no primary areas for concern,” HISA said. Last week, HISA convened an “emergency veterinary summit” that resulted in new measures, including increased screening of horses for risk factors and collecting blood and hair samples whenever a horse dies. It also appointed an equine forensics specialist to review necropsies.

The suspension of racing at the site is among the most serious developments yet in the ailing sport’s years-long reckoning with drugs, deaths and a dwindling fan base. In 2019, 37 horses died in a racing season at Santa Anita Park in Southern California, galvanizing a push for changes to the sport.

For years, publicly traded CDI was one of most powerful opponents of a federal act creating oversight of the sport, telling investors such changes “could have a material adverse impact on our business.” That stance apparently changed amid political pressure following the federal indictments in 2020 of dozens of trainers and others for horse doping.

After overcoming lawsuits from industry opponents, HISA went into effect May 22, two days after the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the Triple Crown. The Belmont Stakes will take place June 10, rounding out thoroughbred racing’s most elite series.

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