Curious Louisville

Note: The deaths-per-thousand-races figures have been corrected in this story.

Every horse racing fan remembers Eight Belles’ death, said Michael Blowen, the owner of Old Friends, a retirement farm for thoroughbreds. It happened in 2008, minutes after the filly had placed in the Kentucky Derby; she collapsed on the track after both her ankles broke.

In television coverage from the race, cameras zoomed in on veterinarian Dr. Larry Bramlage.

“They immediately euthanized her because there was no possible way to save her,” Bramlage said after the race.

“But I’ll tell you,” said Blowen, “Nobody loved Eight Belles more than her trainer, Larry Jones. I was on the backside of Churchill Downs every morning that week, and he had that horse out grazing every day. He adored her, and no one was more broken up about what happened to Eight Belles.”

And Blowen himself loves horses, especially racehorses.

Old Friends is an expansive farm outside Georgetown — the kind with wide pastures and volunteers who hand-feed carrots to retired racehorses. Every morning Blowen visits 1997 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Silver Charm, yelling across the field, “Who’s the greatest horse in the world?”

Ashlie Stevens | wfpl.org

Blowen and Silver Charm.

He acknowledges that the entire industry hasn’t always taken all the precautions it could have to keep the horses safe — though things are getting better.

Two of our listeners, Mike Tarsa and Addison Cramer, wanted to know how often horses are injured or killed during thoroughbred races. And what’s being done to prevent it?

They asked Curious Louisville.

So we called in our data reporter, Alexandra Kanik, to see if she could track down some numbers.

“Since 2008 the Jockey Club has been collecting statistics on thoroughbred horse race deaths,” said Kanik. “This database only captures the thoroughbreds. They also collect data in terms of surface area, distance and race. They only track deaths — they don’t track injuries. In terms of total thoroughbred horse deaths, in 2009 there were 790. In 2017 there were 493.”

That’s in North America. We should also note, there were fewer races in 2017 than in 2009. So in 2009, there were about 14 deaths per thousand races. In 2017 that number dropped to about 12 deaths per thousand races.

“I did a little analysis over those different  variables I mentioned,” Kanik explained. “Shorter races were more dangerous. Older horses are more likely to die during a race — that seemed logical to me. And then the three choices for surface to race on are dirt tracks, synthetic tracks, and turf. Dirt tracks were the most dangerous to race on, and synthetic tracks were the least dangerous.”

Kanik said — as did Blowen — that many folks in the horse racing industry are using this data to improve conditions for horses. For example, a lot of dirt tracks have been converted to synthetic or turf in recent years.

But all three of the Triple Crown races are run on dirt tracks, so we wanted to know what else is being done to try to reduce the number of horse injuries and deaths.

Steve Koch is the executive director for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s Safety and Integrity Alliance (the Safety and Integrity Alliance was established in 2009 — the year after Eight Belles’ death on the track).

“We’ve got 23 accredited race tracks in North American racing,” Koch said. “We create a code of safety and integrity standards. So basically, what are the standards that would be in pace at a well-run and well-regulated race tracks.”

Koch continued: “There are stewards at the racetrack, and they are the first line of overseeing and enforcing this set of rules.”

In order to stay accredited, the tracks have to have each horse examined by an official veterinarian before and after each race.

Any horse that dies or is euthanized during a race has to have a post-mortem examination. The NTRA also dictates what medications horses at their racetracks are allowed and not allowed to be on, and how often they should be tested for banned substances.

Curious Louisville reported back to question-askers Mike Tarsa and Addison Cramer for their reactions; both said while the numbers have improved, the findings still leave them uneasy.

“When she said the numbers between 2009 and 2017 I was still floored,” Cramer said. “It sickened me a little bit. I was not expecting it to be that high. To hear that in a very well organized, continually-better-regulated database that there are still some 400 horse deaths each year on the track that are reported — it’s hard for me.”

Ashlie Stevens | wfpl.org

Old Friends Farm

Back at Old Friends Farm, Blowen said those involved in horse racing have become increasingly concerned with after-care for horses who have finished their racing days, and he sees attitudes changing industry-wide with regards to track safety.

“They’re doing a lot of things to try and get better,” Blowen said. “You won’t end it — horses will still get injured, but you can minimize it.”

You can listen to this story in the player above, download it here, and subscribe to Curious Louisville wherever you get your podcasts. Have a question of your own? Type it in the form below, or at CuriousLouisville.org.

Alexandra Kanik brings the numbers to life as the data reporter for WFPL News and the Ohio Valley ReSource.
Laura produces Recut, Curious Louisville, Strange Fruit, and other audio news stories for WFPL.
Ashlie Stevens is WFPL's Arts & Culture Reporter.