This year's Kentucky Derby featured elegant hats, natty suits and bourbon-soaked soirees as usual, but a series of deaths, injuries and a drug scandal cast a pall over the nation's most famous horse race.
Eight thoroughbreds died and five more, including early favorite Forte, were scratched from the race because of injuries. Churchill Downs suspended trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. days before the event after two of his horses suddenly died, and after the race, Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher was suspended and fined because of a positive drug test involving Forte that dates back to 2022.
The controversies have reignited concerns among animal rights activists who say the glitz of horse racing's biggest events -- including Saturday's Preakness Stakes -- obscures the grisly reality that the sport is routinely deadly for horses. The fatalities at Churchill Downs might have captured national attention, but they are not out of the norm, according to Patrick Battuello, founder and president of Horseracing Wrongs, a nonprofit that condemns racing as animal exploitation.
"The cluster of deaths of Churchill Downs is unusual," Battuello told ESPN. "But death itself is not unusual. Over the past five years, Churchill Downs has 126 kills on its ledger. That is an average of 25 deaths annually. So, they are right on course to hit their historical average."
An average of more than six thoroughbreds a week -- 328 overall -- died at American racetracks in 2022, according to the Equine Injury Database, which was established by the Jockey Club after the thoroughbred Eight Belles was euthanized after suffering a serious injury in the 2008 Derby.
The official industry tally captures only a portion of the carnage, racing abolition activists note. According to Horseracing Wrongs, 901 racehorses -- more than 17 a week -- were killed in 2022. The group's database, which Battuello maintains, includes all racehorses -- not only thoroughbreds -- as well as many stall deaths and training breakdowns not reflected in the Jockey Club statistics.
The circumstances surrounding the deaths at Churchill Downs are varied. Four horses were put down after sustaining injuries in races preceding the Derby. One suffered a broken neck after apparently being startled and flipping in a saddling paddock. Two others inexplicably collapsed and died after participating in races shortly before the Derby, despite showing no visible signs of injury. An eighth horse was euthanized when it suffered a catastrophic leg injury during a race at the track just over a week after the Derby.
Churchill Downs officials announced investigations even as they cast the deaths as tragedies that eluded their best efforts to make the sport safer.
"While each incident reported has been unique, it is important to note that there has been no discernible pattern detected in the injuries sustained," Churchill Downs said in a statement, noting that track surfaces are closely monitored and horses are thoroughly examined before races. "While we believe the incidents leading to this year's Derby are anomalies, they are unacceptable, and we remain steadfast in our commitment to safety and integrity."
Both the Kentucky Horseracing Commission and the congressionally mandated Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, a newly formed regulatory body that oversees horse racing safety nationally, have launched probes that are still ongoing.
"HISA officials will review data on track conditions and maintenance and each horse's veterinary and training records, as well as final necropsy reports, when available," the authority said in a statement to ESPN. "In addition, HISA officials will review the data collection and review processes utilized by the KHRC and Churchill Downs in the course of their investigations."
The deaths at Churchill Downs were just the latest in a litany of horse death clusters at the nation's racetracks.
At Parx Racing outside Philadelphia, state officials reported that 31 horses died during the first six months of 2021. Two years earlier, 59 horses died at that racetrack. Late last month in Maryland, five horses suffered fatal injuries at Laurel Park, forcing a temporary shutdown of the track.
The highly publicized deaths of 49 horses at California's storied Santa Anita Park between July 2018 and June 2019 prompted investigations by state racing officials and the Los Angeles County prosecutor's office.
The California Horse Racing Board's inquiry into the Santa Anita deaths found that many of the horses suffered from preexisting injuries that had gone undetected. But the Los Angeles District Attorney's office found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing, and its report called death a tragic reality of the sport.
"Horse racing has inherent risks but is a legally sanctioned sport in California," then-District Attorney Jackie Lacey said. "Greater precautions are needed to enhance safety and protect both horses and their riders."
The crisis at Santa Anita prompted officials to shut the track for almost a month. It reopened with stronger regulations for practices including medication for horses, track safety and the use of riding crops.
The new policies coincided with a sharp decline in fatalities, as reported by industry officials. Last year, the California Horse Racing Board reported that the number of deaths at Santa Anita had fallen to 12. Nationwide, according to the Jockey Club, the rate of thoroughbred deaths is down sharply, from two fatal injuries per 1,000 starts in 2009, to 1.25 per 1,000 starts in 2022 -- a 37.5% decline. The industry credits closer attention to the safety of track surfaces and the medical care of horses for the drop. Horseracing Wrongs' database, however, reflects a more modest decline in horse deaths since Battuello began documenting them in 2014.
Still, horse safety advocates say more needs to be done, particularly to better regulate the use of diuretics, anti-inflammatories and other drugs that are regularly administered to help horses run and recover faster. In 2020, federal prosecutors indicted 27 people in a widespread horse doping scheme that safety advocates say is typical of the illegal activity that swirls around horse racing.
"There is a cloud over the sport because we've not been able to put in place all the safety devices and the drug testing that we need," Arthur B. Hancock III, a breeder and longtime horse safety advocate told ESPN. "Until we get rid of the drugs and thugs, it's going to continue. And if we don't get rid of them, horse racing could go the same way as dog racing, the circus and Sea World."
Hancock hopes a new nationwide anti-doping and medication program will go a long way toward bringing American racing in line with its counterparts in other countries, which he said suffer fewer horse racing fatalities because regulation is more uniform. The HISA program, which will replace the current patchwork of state regulation, is set to launch Monday.
"Hopefully, once everything is in place you won't see much of this anymore," he said.
Yet racing abolitionists are skeptical of reform because they see the sport as inherently deadly for horses. They note that because thoroughbreds have been bred for speed, they are particularly susceptible to breakdowns. They weigh well over 1,000 pounds and run on spindly legs and human-sized ankles at speeds that often top 40 mph.
Beyond their breeding, Battuello said the biggest culprit is "the incessant training and grind" that frequently leaves 2- or 3-year old horses, who are still developing physically, damaged and prone to fatal injury.
"A certain amount of killing is inevitable in horse racing," he said. "The breakneck speed is not something that horses do in the wild. Plus, there is a perched, whip-wielding jockey. All these factors lead to what I call this inevitability of death at the track."