Churchill Downs — the operator of the storied racetrack of the same name — announced late Friday that it is halting its spring meet effective June 7 and that the remainder of the session will be moved to Ellis Park following the deaths of a dozen horses over the past month.
Racing will continue as scheduled this weekend and will commence at Ellis Park Racing & Gaming in Henderson, Ky. on Saturday, June 10. The operator is undertaking what CEO Bill Carstanjen called a “top-to-bottom review” of its safety standards and protocols and track surface.
What has happened at our track is deeply upsetting and absolutely unacceptable,” said the chief executive officer 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.”
Recent investigations by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC) and the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) didn’t identify a specific factor contributing to the surge in equine deaths at the home of the Kentucky Derby. Likewise, testing of the track indicated the surface is on par with what has been seen in previous years.
Deaths Overshadowed Churchill Downs Derby Success
News of Churchill Downs suspending its spring meet and moving it Ellis Park arrived less than three weeks after the Derby – an event that was an unabashed success for the gaming operator.
Not only was the run for the roses the second-most watched sporting event of 2023 behind only the Super Bowl, it generated record-breaking betting handle. The same was true of the broader slate of Derby Week races, including the Kentucky Oaks race.
However, the deaths of seven horses in the 10 days leading up to the Derby cast a pall over the most famous US horse race while stoking increased scrutiny into what caused the accidents. Four of those seven horses were euthanized after sustaining injuries.
Two horses of those seven horses — Parents Pride and Chasing Artie — died under what were deemed mysterious circumstances, leading to the suspension of trainer Saffie Joseph Jr.
The equine deaths at Churchill Downs come as the horseracing industry is under the microscope regarding its safety protocols. Those deaths follow more than three dozen at Santa Anita Park in Los Angeles in 2019 and several at Del Mar Thoroughbred Club near San Diego the same year.
Move to Ellis Park Could Make Sense
Some racing experts believe that if there are issues with the Churchill Downs track that are endangering horses, the move to Ellis Park is sensible.
“By relocating the remainder of the meet to Ellis Park, we are able to maintain this industry ecosystem with only minor disruption. We are grateful to the Kentucky horsemen for their support, resiliency and continued partnership as we collectively work to find answers during this time,” added Carstanjen.
Ellis Park, which is also operated by Churchill Downs, is located near the Kentucky/Indiana border.
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