Churchill Downs – All Clear

by Ed Meyer

posted on April 10, 2009 in News | No Comments >>

The first racetrack accredited under a national racing group’s safety certification program is Churchill Downs, the site of the fatal breakdown that spurred questions about whether the thoroughbred industry was lackadaisical about the well-being of its horses and jockeys.

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s Safety and Integrity Alliance announced yesterday that the track — where Eight Belles suffered a fatal breakdown after her second-place Kentucky Derby finish last year — received an unconditional two-year accreditation.

Racing faces an inherent engineering challenge with 1,000-pound animals running at 40 mph, Churchill Downs Inc. President Bob Evans said during a news conference, but he and NTRA officials said they must make efforts to address safety.

“We’ve come a long way in the last year,” Evans said. “… The challenge I’d like to put in front of everybody is, can we make even more progress in the year ahead, because I don’t think we’re done. I think we’re just getting started.”

Evans, who helped develop the alliance, said the industry already had been focusing on safety issues before Eight Belles, citing discussions after 2006 Derby winner Barbaro’s breakdown in that year’s Preakness Stakes.

But he said Eight Belles served as a catalyst to act.

Alliance certification covers injury reporting and prevention; creating safer racing environments; aftercare and transition of retired racehorses; uniform medication, testing and penalties; and safety research.

Churchill’s accreditation follows the completion of a 48-page application and a site visit Monday by an alliance team, including its monitor, former Wisconsin governor and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.

During an announcement at the track yesterday, Thompson said he believes the accreditation is justified and placed it in the perspective of the 135-year-old Derby and the attention it draws.

“Each year we want it to be safer and better, and … there have been improvements and the integrity is here,” Thompson said. “And it’s sound.

And the individuals that run this track and the people that run the thoroughbred racing association have absolutely done what they said they were going to do in regards to improving the integrity and the safety of thoroughbred racing here in America.”

The accreditation letter from Mike Ziegler, the alliance’s executive director, said Churchill met or exceeded all safety standards, including post-race veterinary inspections through the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission veterinarians and its padded starting gate.

The letter also praised Churchill’s internal “Safety from Start to Finish” program, which goes beyond the alliance standards, citing increased post-race drug testing and safety mats in saddling stalls.

Churchill is free to use the certification in advertising and communications, Ziegler said.

The accreditation team was to begin an inspection of Keeneland Race Course in Lexington yesterday.

Two Churchill-owned tracks, Calder Race Course near Miami and Arlington Park near Chicago, are to be visited soon, Ziegler said.