For horses in the Kentucky Derby, change can’t come soon enough

By Keith Dane

By on May 4, 2023 with 22 Comments

Update 5/8/23: A total of seven horses died at Churchill Downs in the days leading up to and on the day of the Kentucky Derby, and five horses were scratched. In light of these facts, it is shocking that the race was even run. Lives are on the line: The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act must be fully implemented and enforced immediately. Anyone seeking to delay such protections for horses cares nothing at all for the welfare of these animals.

For years, we’ve fought to bring greater protection for racehorses, and recently we’ve helped to secure major wins on their behalf, such as ensuring the passage and implementation of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act. This bill, which became law in 2020, involved a good deal of effort and extended negotiations with forward-thinking industry leaders. As the Kentucky Derby approaches, Keith Dane, the senior director of equine protection for the Humane Society of the United States, reflects on recent progress made for horses on tracks across the U.S. and what is urgently needed to make horse racing more humane.

No other race attracts the audience and viewership of the Kentucky Derby, the first of the three annual horse races known as the Triple Crown. Despite all the pomp and circumstance associated with the sport, horse racing and the Derby have a far less glamorous dimension.

This year, even before the horses enter the starting gate, the race has been marred by the news of four horse deaths at Churchill Downs, the racetrack that hosts the Derby, ahead of the big race. Two were euthanized after injuries, and two other horses died suddenly of undetermined causes.

This isn’t the first time horse deaths have shown racing’s tragic side. In one notorious case, in 2008, the second-place winning filly, Eight Belles, suffered a catastrophic breakdown just after the Derby ended, fracturing both her front ankles and resulting in her immediate euthanasia, to the shock and horror of spectators at the race and TV viewers worldwide.

The recent spate of deaths at Laurel Park in Maryland, where 13 horses have died, is another indication of ongoing safety concerns that the industry needs to address in order to protect racehorses.

We have been fighting for necessary reforms, which clearly cannot come too soon for the horses whose lives are on the line. This Saturday will be the first Kentucky Derby run under the new racetrack safety rules implemented under the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act. The implementation of the new Anti-Doping and Medication Control rules that were finalized in March has been pushed back to May 22, in time for the Belmont Stakes, the final leg of the Triple Crown on June 4. Just last year, news broke that Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit tested positive on race day for a banned drug and was formally disqualified and stripped of his 2021 victory.

We celebrated when the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act was signed into law, and when an amendment intended to address a question about the constitutionality of the Act was passed last December. We’ll monitor the Act’s implementation and work with our industry partners to ensure it increases protection for racehorses, which is clearly urgently needed.

While doping is believed to be a major contributor to racehorse breakdowns and fatalities, there are other ongoing threats to racehorse welfare, and the Authority established by the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act is well-positioned to address them. Implementation of the new safety rules is off to a fair start. For example, while the use of whips continues to be a very visible, visceral and controversial element of racing, the Authority has established strict rules limiting their use, penalizing jockeys who violate those rules. The Authority is also working to address the dangers of unforgiving track surfaces that have not been properly maintained, which can also lead to breakdowns, injuries and fatalities.

A number of prominent trainers, owners, breeders and jockeys came forward in support of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act and are now pressing for its enforcement. But some states and industry organizations, such as the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (a trade group of owners, trainers and backstretch personnel), have dug in their heels—even going so far as to file lawsuits to block the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act’s implementation. The association attempted to block reform by filing a lawsuit resulting in a court-ordered 30-day injunction of the enforcement of the Act’s drug and medication rules. But the injunction expired May 1, and the Federal Trade Commission ordered that enforcement be resumed, clearing the way for the Act’s rules and regulations to take effect on May 22.

While some may continue to fight reforms that make racing safer for horses, we know that in the long run those individuals and organizations will lose. That’s because the American public is increasingly humane-minded and less likely to tolerate a sport that treats animals as mere commodities, routinely sees its athletes die on the field and discounts their deaths as a cost of doing business.

Equine, Public Policy (Legal/Legislative)

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  1. Diana Lewis says:

    There’s nothing sportsmanlike about the way these majestic animals are trained and treated!

    • Denice says:

      My heart aches from all the horses who have died on race tracks across the world! These most precious horses put through torture and died from physical abuse needs to stop!

  2. Nancy Lowell says:

    Interesting. I used to enjoy watching the big races, until a filly died on the track in 2008. Her injury was horriffic, with both front legs broken. The immediate site was curtained off from viewers because the scene was so grisly. So, yeah, I’d say we can certainly use a Horse Racing
    Integrity and Safety act. That horse last year didn’t arrange his banned drug dosing; they are completely at our mercy, and sometimes we have none for them.
    Horses, like all animals, have their own lives to live. We NEED legislation to enforce their care, to judge by the mutilation and death in the industry.

  3. Karin Erker says:

    Stop das Pferderennen ….

  4. Kathryn Irby says:

    Horse racing must be banned ASAP permanently!!! All that the owners see is the Almighty Dollar that their respective horses can produce. They couldn’t care less about the welfare of the horses, themselves. Horses are very loving animals, with feelings of love and pain, just as any human being has. They should be loved and appreciated for themselves, not how much money they can rake in!!! This is completely unacceptable!!!

    • Bigdog says:


    • Kimberly Venturo says:

      I experienced that heinous event myself at Saratoga. I was horrified. My husband at the time and writer of handicapping books, and I immediately left the track and I never returned. No excuse for Animal Abuse. Making money off animals in a dangerous sport is criminal.

    • Erika Geserer says:

      I fully agree with the writer. Horseracing is a brutal so called ‘sport’. It should be outlawed to prevent these wonderful animals from being so mistreated.

  5. Carol Gage says:

    What humans do to animals in the name of ‘entertainment’ is downright shameful. It all needs to change, but I wonder if we’ll ever have the collective will to do what we really must to make things better for animals. I live and hope…

  6. Pam Walls says:

    I totally agree. I have petitioned, called, and emailed everyone including all the powers-that-be that I could find in the last five to ten years or more! I appreciate the hard work that the HSUS is doing on behalf of the horses. I know the battle is not over, and I will also continue to be their voice.

    • Erika Geserer says:

      I to am a horse lover, owned horses for many years. The most wonderful times of my life was being out with my mare(s). I too sign every petition that comes to me, in the hopes that the HSUS is successful in educating the public, in achieving the empathy of all.

  7. Debra A Ingle/ AKA ladyrocker says:

    I am an animal advocate and I think that the racing should end period. These people don’t care about the horses. Let them be horses, not running machines! Riding one around land is one thing, but running them hard on a track is another. There are so many things being done to animals that are just wrong, and hopefully more people are being aware of this now. Horses have feelings too, and putting them through the training for racing is not what life should be like for these intelligent beings.

  8. A.K. says:

    While I agree that elimination of racing would be the ideal – I applaud and so appreciate these efforts to work with the sport to bring about meaningful change which can hopefully lead to more protections for these magnificent animals.

  9. Karen Ann Drennen says:

    Horseracing is not the “sport of kings”. It is a dying industry filled with smoke and mirrors. 7 horses died at the Kentucky Derby this past week. Attention was given because it is the Kentucky Derby but the truth is over 2000 horses are killed a year in horseracing in the U.S. . 6 per day. A CNN host said the breakdowns and injuries are part of the “sport” and should be expected. The “athletes” are kept in isolation 23 hrs a day. They are bred for speed and are racing young horses before their bones develop. Necropsy reports from the tracks that report them show death from gastric ulcers, osteoarthritis, laminitis, and catastrophic spinal and head injuries as well as legs snapping off. The athletes are euthanized on the track and ones that survive or are lame are sent to slaughter. Doping is a problem but one of numerous inhumane aspects of an unnatural sport in which horses are being pushed to run faster at an unnatural rate, in an unnatural way through unnatural means. It is a money making business, based on gambling and animal exploitation at its highest level. Add to that mix drugs that are not medically appropriate, veterinary shortage, lack of transparency, lack of accountability and poor attendance and you have the ‘Sport of Kings”. It is time to accept the fact that Horseracing will never be safe no matter what changes are made. There is nothing it it for the horses and their lives should matter.

    • Pam Walls says:

      Thanks, Karen for putting the terrible, but necessary information out there that some may not be aware of. We who care about the welfare of the horses must keep pressuring those who profit in any way from the horse racing “sport” to stop the abuse and killing of these magnificent beings. Enough is Enough!

  10. Alan Alejandro Maldonado Ortiz says:

    No podemos permitir más abusos a estos caballos esto tiene que acabar se tiene que hacer algo al respecto por favor todos tenemos que alzar la voz por ellos

  11. Carolyn Clark says:

    Absolutely. Horseracing needs to be totally banned since it obviously can’t be monitored and regulated by the owners of these magnificent animals. The whole industry makes me ill. Animals are not on earth for human beings’ entertainment.

  12. Tasceaie C Jennings says:

    We are responsible for the health and well-being of The Earth and all Beings dependent on Her for their existence.

  13. Kathy DeLamater says:

    I heartily agree with all the comments above. Enough! These majestic animals should be treated better and not doped up to perform better. Thank you to the Humane Society and other animal welfare groups working to give these horses protection!

  14. Krystle sinto says:

    It just never seems to end. Money is more important than these horses. My heart breaks for them. People in this industry don’t really care all they see is dollar signs.

  15. virginia hoyt says:

    Clearly the horse knowledgible among us see what currently goes forward as “Horse Racing”. The animals’ immaturity, doping, human greed for both money and fame, all carried out sub-rosa because of the correctly assumed public shock and horror are certain inditement against racing. The fact that the Thoroughbred gene pool is closed to “new” blood is also a factor. And yet it continues because there is money and fame involved….even when euthanasia is administered on the track, in full view of race spectators. This same under cover behavior is becoming ever more obvious in way too many human activities. Take the money OUT of horse racing and watch the “sport” shrivel.

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