Twelve horses died around the Kentucky Derby last year. Little has changed since

aAs Churchill Downs prepares to host the 150th Kentucky Derby, a darker anniversary looms Saturday. A year ago, 12 horses died at Churchill Downs in the days and weeks surrounding America’s biggest race.

As the hype builds around this year’s runners, the departed fall deeper into the well of memory, if they are remembered at all. Wild on Ice, a gelding born in 2020 and a Derby qualifier, was euthanized after suffering a broken hind leg during training ahead of last year’s race. His connections expressed regret over their missed opportunity to see him reach his full potential. A month later, Kimberley Dream, a seven-year-old ‘war horse’, made her 61st start when she broke down in a claims race. In the graph, the last note about her short life read: “went wrong in the higher part”.

In the time between those deaths, Churchill saw routine horse suffering with the deaths of Code of Kings, Parents Pride, Take Charge Briana, Chasing Artie, Chloe’s Dream, Freezing Point, Rio Moon, Lost in Limbo, Bosque Redondo and Swanson Lake . . Twelve deaths on one track in one month. These horses this time were no different than the horses on the back and the race cards. For racing fans and runners, Derby Day is exciting, prestigious and perhaps even profitable, but for the horses it’s about survival. When a day in sports ends without a death, there is a collective sigh of relief. What a grim reality.

Cardiovascular collapse, catastrophic leg injuries, and exercise-induced sudden death are ongoing threats. All who died on their race day last year were reportedly considered healthy by track veterans. Some connections seemed to blame the horses themselves, claiming their horse had β€œtaken a bad step” resulting in a broken leg. It’s an excuse often used to explain breakdowns – but it’s a claim worth questioning given racehorses’ athleticism and overwhelming need to protect themselves.

But if a young horse is exhausted and overloaded, stumbling is conceivable. Year after year, scandals swirl around the sport, and countless racehorses in the US die violently and quietly, far from the spotlight of major races like the Derby. The story has been the same for decades, only the horses and the doping mechanisms have changed. If horse welfare is a reliable measure of racing performance, what happened at last year’s Kentucky Derby should not be ignored. The industry abandons these events time and time again; the dead cannot.

After last year’s tragedies found a study that the twelve horses that died at Churchill Downs had all run more times during their careers than the average racehorse. No other connection between them was identified. Barring a horrific coincidence (a coincidence that has happened repeatedly at various tracks over the years), a reasonable conclusion is that these horses were simply pushed too early, too hard and too often, something I have seen regularly during my career at the circuit.

I have spent a large part of my life with racehorses. Working with young horses, both on and off the track, has given me a deep insight into them. It strikes me how inherently abusive racing is to young horses. When racehorses are started or ‘broken’ as babies, they are taken to the track to begin training preparation at the gallop. Two-year-olds are thrust into a full racing career before they have time to develop the balance and physical and mental integrity necessary to safely and comfortably carry weight at maximum speed. Derby runners are technically three years old (all Jockey Club thoroughbreds share a universal birthday on January 1, but their actual birthdays are often months later), but by the time they run for the roses, their bodies have already got a beating.

Kentucky Derby participant Grand Mo The First gets a bath Thursday after training at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. Photo: Charlie Riedel/AP

Some farms and outfits have conscientious training and running programs and experienced weight-appropriate riders, but the sport in the US is structured to put enormous pressure on young horses. An outfit’s ability to protect its horses from overexertion depends on the extent of its compassion and the size of its financier’s bankroll. A horse that cannot run is often a financial burden. Racing culture has to be hyper-vigilant about solidity because the sport itself is so damaging to it. Horses are programmed to hide pain and cannot tell us when they feel it.

U.S. Dressage Federation gold medalist Martin Arnold offers an illuminating analogy about riding young horses. β€œI liken it to a plank, but add 100-200 pounds [the rider and saddle] to it, and you can see how a young horse would struggle. Over time, the correct musculature is developed, planking becomes easier and the horse’s frame begins to rise higher.”

Two-year-olds and three-year-olds are young horses. Young horses that are overtrained and raced while also not given generous recovery time – and who spend most of their lives in a stable with no room to roam – are susceptible to degradation due to reduced bone and tissue integrity. The current approach in American racing is less about conservation and a symbiotic relationship between growth and training and more about a kind of patch-as-we-go.

Even those who survive a full racing career often suffer injuries and must spend the rest of their lives coping with the ailments – chronic lameness, spinal problems, arthritis, mental illness – acquired during their short careers. Longevity is not part of the overall model because a new crop of horses – about 20,000 – appear on the scene every year. The well-bred animals receive extra attention because they have something profitable to offer in the breeding stable, even if they are no longer on the race track.

Loving horses, especially young ones, forces me to convey the message that their pain is real. I want to believe there is a will for meaningful change within the racing world, but I don’t believe that will exists. I hope I’m proven wrong. My hope is for the horses. Master rider Charles de Kunffy said: ‘We build up the horse or tear it down.’ On Saturday, when the Sport of Kings puts on its glitz and spectacle, we should remember all those it tore down.