With the spotlight dimming somewhat on 23 horse fatalities at Santa Anita, media attention now turns to Kentucky as the biggest event in American horse racing approaches. A horse fatality in a race at the current Keeneland meet and two recent stories from the Louisville Courier Journal are extending the negative publicity generated at Santa Anita.

After the horse breakdown at Keeneland, the track’s CEO released a statement that said in part: “…we will review and evaluate all facets of our racing operation to ensure the safest possible environment for the equine and human athletes participating in our racing program.”

The words are well intentioned but do not hold up under factual scrutiny. If Keeneland was sincerely trying to “ensure the safest possible environment for the equine and human athletes” it would not have torn out its synthetic racetrack surface and replaced it with dirt. Keeneland acted knowing that data from the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database clearly demonstrate that equine injuries are much lower on synthetic surfaces and, in fact, show dirt to be the unsafest surface of all for racing. (Santa Anita also replaced a synthetic surface with dirt and horse fatalities predictably soared immediately.)

The first Courier Journal story was titled “Churchill Downs is one of the deadliest racetracks in America” and the second headline was “Horse racing is worse than football for concussions. Why isn’t the US doing more?” So this is the negative backdrop for the upcoming Derby.

The Kentucky Derby typically has a 20-horse field requiring two starting gates. This is a recipe for a barrage of criticism should there be an accident, particularly at the start of the race or on the first turn. Can’t you hear the public outcry and Churchill Downs’ reactive response that it will study the matter of whether the Derby field size should be reduced?

Why not proactively limit the field to 14 horses and one starting gate in the name of safety? Many of the horses in a 20-horse field are pretenders rather than contenders, anyway.

Churchill Downs and Keeneland (and Santa Anita) have made themselves vulnerable to hard-to-counter charges that the safety of jockeys and horses runs a poor second to monetary goals.

For those of us who enjoy horse racing and want to see it have a future in the United States, it is troubling to see leaders in the sport repeatedly engage in actions that invite public condemnation and espouse lofty words so obviously contradicted by hard evidence. Injuries are bound to happen in athletic endeavors, but common-sense initiatives can curb the number.

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