The deaths of seven thoroughbred horses in the days leading up to the Kentucky Derby overshadowed the race at Churchill Downs this spring. After the event, five more horses died.
Then late this summer, during a race at another famous track in Saratoga Springs, New York, the horse in the lead, Maple Leaf Mel, suddenly stumbled to the ground just a few feet from the finish line. The injury to the horse’s right leg was so grave that handlers had to euthanize her right away in front of crowds gathered in the grandstands.
“This has been an incredibly difficult year in horse racing,” said Lisa Lazarus, CEO of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority. HISA, a regulatory body created by Congress in 2020, launched an investigation of the deaths at Churchill, Saratoga and other tracks across the country.
Most of the deaths have resulted from catastrophic injuries on the track, which was the case with Maple Leaf Mel and the majority of this year’s fatalities at Churchill Downs.
“Horse racing has made a really significant impact on the number of equine fatalities annually, but certainly it has been way too many, and it’s something we really need to improve as an industry,” Lazarus said.
The high-profile nature of this year’s deaths has led HISA to examine whether recent efforts to improve safety are falling short. But a critical aspect of horse racing may be missing from that review: horses too young to compete.
A Scripps News investigation found the beginning of a horse’s career to be a vulnerable time when oversight is at its weakest and millions of dollars are on the line. We also found virtually no tracking of injuries and deaths for horses too young to race.
A black hole
HISA declined to share its numbers of deaths and injuries this year with Scripps News, saying its statistics weren’t yet ready. But a Scripps News analysis of national data from the animal rights group Horseracing Wrongs showed at least 298 thoroughbred racehorse deaths so far this year linked to training or racing.
That leaves out an untold number of deaths of young horses in training, since most states only start tracking fatalities among horses around the time of a horse's first race.
Lazarus confirmed her still relatively new organization, HISA, also does not track fatalities among these young horses.
"Speaking here today, we don't have that data yet,” Lazarus said. “We haven't studied the practices and the different things that essentially the horses might experience at that point in their lives.”
The Association of Racing Commissioners International, which represents state regulators of the sport, raised concerns in 2019 that a significant part of the industry, particularly the part that covers young horses, was unregulated.
Lazarus also said she had concerns. “If we don't have oversight of the first couple of years, we are at a disadvantage when that horse comes to us.”
The journey for many young horses to a racing career begins at public auctions like one held in early August next to the track in Saratoga Springs.
The horses for sale were all yearlings, around 1 year old and too young to fall under the protections of HISA.
Before the auction got underway, buyers and agents could be seen studying the detailed pedigrees of each horse, including offspring of past Derby winners.
“They could be worth millions of dollars when they go under the hammer tonight,” said Natalie Voss, editor-in-chief of an industry publication called the Paulick Report, “which is interesting because of course you don’t know at that point if that horse will race well or not, or if they’ll race at all or not. So it’s an enormous risk.”
Sales staff walk each horse, identified by a number affixed to its hip, in front of interested buyers as they study the horse’s gait. Occasionally buyers bring in their own veterinarians with mobile X-ray machines.
“It’s kind of a constant vetting process,” Voss said.
For a seller, a small limp or evidence of an old injury on an X-ray could mean missing out on big money. These are also issues that can be masked with drugs that are banned by federal regulation at the racetrack, but left to private sales companies to restrict at the auction house.
$4 million yearling
At the Saratoga auction on a small dirt stage, horses sell for six and seven figures.
And then the horse creating the most buzz at the sale is up. The bidding for horse No. 165 goes up to $1 million, then $2 million. The young colt rears up – just his hind legs making contact with the ground. He’s clearly spooked. These horses are just 1 year old after all, and they’re still learning how to be handled. He rears up once again. It’s clear this is a large animal in a small space, and a misstep could be tragic. The auctioneer stops and asks the crowd for silence to calm an amped-up horse. After audible gasps from the spectators, there’s a long pause.
And then the bidding resumes. Spotters scan the room, looking for subtle gestures of a bid. Well-known buyers don’t want to advertise they’re interested for fear it will drive up the price. The bid goes up to $3 million, then $3.5 million, but it’s not clear to most in the audience whom the bidding war is between.
“Four million dollars even,” the auctioneer finally announces, to cheers from an amazed crowd.
2-year-olds in training
As horses get a little older than the ones at the sale in Saratoga Springs, usually beginning at age 2, the physical demands on them increase.
Sellers will often show off how fast they can already sprint, a demonstration of speed designed to drive up prices called breezes.
"The fastest times, those are going to be your most expensive horses,” Voss said.
For most, the goal in these dashes is to run 1/8 mile, or one furlong, in 10 seconds or less – a pace quicker than "their fastest race of their lives,” Voss said.
But it’s not so much this short sprint that concerns some in the industry. It’s what leads up to it.
“The prep process for that is what people tend to worry about,” she said. “People wonder but don't really know how many horses might suffer stress injuries in that preparation process.”
There are studies that show challenging exercise benefits a horse by helping adapt the musculoskeletal system to the rigors of racing while the horse is still developing. But HISA has noted that frequent high-intensity exercise without enough recovery time puts a horse at greater risk of suffering a catastrophic injury. HISA has not examined the early part of a horse’s life.
Without regulation, and without robust data collection on injury and death at this stage in a horse’s career, the trainer is left to decide how much to push a young horse and when.
“My 2-year-olds, I'm on top of them like a fly on you-know-what,” said veteran trainer Gary Contessa, who invited Scripps News to see his 2-year-old horses in Saratoga Springs. He said he feels their legs every day before they go to the track for workouts and then again after, checking for any subtle changes in their ankles, knees, shoulders, even tracking attitude changes. He tries to stop a problem before it can grow into a bigger one.
In his decades of experience, which include racking up $85 million in career earnings and having several of the horses he’s trained go on to compete in the Kentucky Derby, he said minor injuries may be more common in the preparation for 2-year-old sales, but that they aren’t worrisome if a trainer does what’s right for the horse.
Contessa likened a 2-year-old horse to a high schooler, both in its personality and how a coach has to manage them.
“You're not going to take a high-school football player and inject his ankle with cortisone because he wrenched his ankle and send him back out there like you would an NFL player,” he said. “You're going to let that kid heal because he's still growing, his bones are growing, his growth plates haven't finished growing.”
Contessa said the industry understands how a 2-year-old should be treated but that, “I don't think every trainer is on board with that.”
He said he doesn’t need to see speed at that young of an age – he needs to see “stride, determination,” even calling these breeze shows “marketing gimmicks.” He said that while the fastest horses in the breezes sell for more, they are rarely the ones that do the best.
Contessa said he still goes to the sales to find a good deal – those horses he sees with potential that no one else is noticing. Research has shown that horses that run in these 2-year-old auctions do end up with more in career earnings. This year’s Kentucky Derby winner, Mage, was sold at a breeze show in 2022. So was Maple Leaf Mel, the horse that suffered a catastrophic injury earlier this year in New York.
But it’s still unclear how many horses that prepare to breeze don’t make it to the auction, and why. A Scripps News analysis of data from the Jockey Club found about a third of all thoroughbreds that are born and registered never go on to race in the U.S. or Canada. However, we couldn’t find data to give the full picture of what happened to them, like whether they suffered an injury in training, were exported to race abroad, were used for breeding, or just weren’t fast enough.
Deaths and drugs
The lack of data about these juvenile horses is not because few of them are made to sprint.
We found that 2-year-old horses have sprinted over 17,000 times in auctions since 2018.
Though no one tracks how often, auctions where horses sprint can turn deadly.
Scripps News obtained video from the animal rights group PETA showing a 2-year-old horse getting hurt while sprinting at a Maryland auction in 2021. As the horse slows down just after completing the sprint, she begins to limp. The rider dismounts and then others can be seen pulling the horse to the ground. It becomes clear the horse suffered a devastating injury. A blue tarp is erected as she is injected with pink fluid.
In the sales catalog, the horse was later listed as withdrawn.
Fasig-Tipton, the sales company that arranged the sprint, told Scripps News through a spokesperson that the horse was humanely euthanized. The company told Scripps News it followed its own protocol by then sending the horse to be drug tested and have a necropsy, a medical examination much like an autopsy for humans. The company declined to share those results, citing confidentiality.
“We strive to keep all injuries, especially catastrophic incidents, to zero but unfortunately, as in racing we are prone to these situations,” wrote Evan Ferraro, director of marketing for Fasig-Tipton.
Contessa, who has sold dozens of 2-year-old horses at public auction, said catastrophic breakdowns of a young horse at auction are rare and that some of those injuries can be chalked up to being unlucky.
Even so, he said he would support applying some of the stringent rules for horses on race day to horses at auction.
“All these different layers of protection would be a good thing at the 2-year-old sales to protect you from the bad guys who are out there,” Contessa said. “I don't think there's a lot of them, but I think there are some.”
As an example, Contessa said federal anti-doping rules should apply to horses still in training.
Performance-enhancing drugs may put a horse at greater risk of getting hurt and can mask injuries, which is considered especially dangerous because in this case, the athlete can’t talk.
“I would love to see at the 2-year-old sales no medication, period,” he said. “Right now they can run on a lot of medication that we can't run on at the track.”
HISA has also banned non-steroidal anti-inflammatories – or NSAIDs, medications similar to ibuprofen in humans – but the group’s anti-doping rules only cover horses shortly before their first race. The agency does not police auctions for the use of drugs, including one group of drugs that may make a bone issue look fine on X-rays while actually weakening it. Researchers linked the drug to a greater risk of catastrophic injuries later in a horse’s career.
In 2019, the three major thoroughbred auction houses each banned the use of these drugs, called bisphosphonates, allowing buyers to pay for a blood test of a purchased horse post-sale and rescind the sale if a horse tests positive. Fasig-Tipton, one of those auction houses, told Scripps News in a written statement that random drug testing occurs on subset of the horses that go through the breezes at their 2-year-old sales. By contrast, HISA does a blood and urine test of each horse post-race and also tests between races. Violations may subject the trainer to a two-year suspension from horse racing, and the horse can be banned for life.
Another major auction house, Ocala Breeders’ Sales out of Florida, outlined its safety protocols for their 2-year-old breeze show sales, including having a veterinarian stationed at the track to monitor the horses. Their director of sales, Tod Wojciechowski, wrote Scripps News that they have performed random drug testing on 2,487 horses since 2015, “representing approximately 15% of the horses that performed in a [breeze] show during that time span.”
Keeneland, which is also among the three major auction houses, operates a racetrack in Kentucky and in that capacity must comply with federal and state regulations. In a written statement, the company shared its contributions to research on horse welfare and safety measures, which include random drug testing.
Keeneland conducts other sales of thoroughbreds, but their director of marketing, Amy Gregory, told Scripps News by email that it no longer conducts 2-year-old sales or breeze shows. The last one it held was before the pandemic in 2019. She did not respond to questions about that decision, including whether concerns over safety played into it.
Horse racing authority's limited reach
Some of the biggest names in horse racing, including Churchill Downs – home of the Kentucky Derby -- and Keeneland encouraged HISA to extend its rules to cover 2-year-old sales. In a June 2022 letter to Lazarus, they wrote that sprints of young horses “at extremely high-speed have the potential to compromise horse welfare” more than slower races, and that for a horse’s protection, “it’s imperative that all workouts are regulated.
Lazarus said the auction houses “have anti-doping programs, but they're not uniform.” She said HISA has recently been in talks with the three major companies encouraging them to get more in line with federal regulations for horses that are racing.
“We'd like to have more synergy, you know, more cooperation, more alignment,” Lazarus said. “I'm not ready to say more power because I'm optimistic that the sales companies are going to want to work with us to achieve these goals.”
A 'covered horse'
The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act of 2020 establishes that HISA’s authority over a racehorse begins at its “first timed and reported workout.” The breeze of a 2-year-old sale is both timed and reported.
"I think there is some credence to the argument that we could take authority over those sales,” Lazarus admitted. "That is probably the direction we will go in if we aren't able to have cooperation from the sales companies.”
She said along with the sales companies’ own rules, market forces can also deter agents selling horses from duping a buyer. Still, she said that may not be enough for one of America’s oldest sports.
“Because it is so unique – it involves animals, not human athletes – we've got to be careful,” Lazarus said. “We do need regulations.”
Fasig-Tipton outlined to Scripps News various measures it is taking to protect the buyer, the seller and the young horse, but pointed out, “We are not a governing body for the breed.”
For the uninitiated, it may be difficult to imagine putting an animal down for a broken leg. But horses are meant to stand. Attempting to keep them off their legs for a long period of time causes other health issues. Putting a horse down in these cases is considered humane even by animal rights groups.
Contessa said there will always be risk of serious injury in the sport.
“Let's face it: You got a 1,200-pound horse and his legs – the bone in his leg is not that much bigger than the bone in your leg,” he said. "We need to have as much safety-minded rules as possible. But you are never going to end the catastrophic breakdowns. But boy, we can knock that number down to almost nothing.”
Scripps News photojournalist Colin McIntyre and data reporting manager Rosie Cima contributed to this report.
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