LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Horse racing safety took center stage in Louisville on Wednesday, four days after the Kentucky Derby avoided a potentially catastrophic collision.
In a wide-ranging discussion at the Louisville Forum, panelists weighed in on Derby field sizes, the spate of horse deaths in California, whips and medication, among other topics.
And, of course, Saturday’s historic disqualification of first-place finisher Maximum Security, who was stripped of a win after stewards ruled he drifted wide turning into the home stretch.
“Absolutely the horse had to come down,” said panelist Donna Barton Brothers, a former jockey who is now an analyst for NBC Sports. The three officials’ determination was a “no-brainer,” she said.
Barton Brothers said Maximum Security’s jockey Luis Saez told her on the track after the race that his horse got spooked at a part of the racecourse where riders and horses hit a “wall of noise.” She agreed with another panelist that the horse may have drifted farther if Saez hadn’t used his riding crop, or whip, to corral him.
She also said she’s never heard jockeys complain about the Derby’s above-average 20-horse fields and predicted Churchill Downs won’t limit the number of horses in the future. But, she said, the track may want to consider adding a single starting gate for all horses, rather than the two joined gates it now uses.
Video replays appeared to show Maximum Security moving into the path of War of Will, who avoided stepping on the horse in front of him. War of Will owner Gary Barber called it a “major infraction that almost led to a catastrophe.”
Indeed, safety concerns have dogged horse racing this year. Santa Anita Park briefly cancelled racing in March after more than 20 horses died at the track, a rash of fatal injuries that renewed calls for medication and other changes.
Barton Brothers, in remarks at the forum, said those deaths came amid massive rain in southern California, extreme temperature changes and the departure of a longtime track employee. Adding dirt to the track gave it a cushion and alleviated “a great deal” of the concerns, she said.
Even though those California deaths don’t appear linked to medication, Churchill Downs, Keeneland and other tracks announced plans in late April to outlaw the use of the anti-bleeding drug furosemide, whose brand name is Lasix, within 24 hours of races. Lasix is routinely given to horses on the day of a race in the U.S., while it's generally banned during that period in other countries.
The tracks’ proposal, which still would need approval by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and regulators in other states, seeks to have the ban in place for 2-year-old horses at their tracks next year. By 2021, raceday Lasix would be prohibited for all horses in stakes races, such as the Derby and Kentucky Oaks.
Master Fencer, who finished sixth in the Derby in his U.S. debut, was the only horse in the 19-entry field not on Lasix. The drug is banned on race days in Japan, where he ran his previous starts.
All 14 horses in Friday’s Oaks, a race for three-year-old fillies, were given Lasix this year.
Eric Hamelback, chief executive of the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, told the Louisville Forum that Lasix is a proven way to keep horses from bleeding while they race and doesn’t enhance performance.
Steve Koch of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s safety and integrity alliance noted that Lasix is highly regulated.
The alliance includes racetracks such as Churchill and Keeneland that are pushing for the Lasix changes, but it has not taken a position on the proposal, Koch told reporters. He also couldn’t predict if it will.
“The debate on Lasix is still very much wide open,” he said.