Voss: On Churchill Fatalities, HISA, And The Answers We May Not Find - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Voss: On Churchill Fatalities, HISA, And The Answers We May Not Find

If I've learned anything from our readership through the years, it's that it is human nature to seek answers in the wake of disappointment or confusion. People like simple, concise explanations for things they find upsetting. Unfortunately, horses (and horse racing) have taught me that reality is rarely so simple.

In each of the so-called fatality spikes that we've seen in the last decade – Aqueduct in 2011-12, Santa Anita in 2019, and now Churchill Downs – racing fans have been justifiably horrified and saddened, and wanted an explanation for why so many horses were lost in a short time. In the wake of the first two events, regulators, veterinarians and safety experts worked together to identify potential risk factors and to make new rules to better protect horses going forward. A racing fatality is thought to be a little like a plane crash in that there isn't just one reason it happens, but a cluster of risk factors converging at just the same time.

And what many of us tend to forget, therefore, is that even the most renowned minds in the field never were able to sketch us out an explanation as to why exactly the spikes in New York and California started when they did. What many people do seem to remember is roughly how many horses died, and that they felt badly about it.

I bring all this up because the difference between the Churchill spike and the others is that most of horse racing is now regulated by the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, thanks to a federal law passed in 2020. People have pinned all kinds of hopes and fears onto the Authority, often without actually reading the law or the Authority's regulations first.

I feared at the time of its creation that people would believe this organization would mark an end to fatality spikes like we saw at Santa Anita, and it's probably true that those perilous months when racing was close to losing its social license to operate helped push the passage of the federal law. I've seen many people question in recent weeks why the Authority doesn't put a stop to the fatalities or why they don't shut down racing at Churchill Downs.

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The reality is that the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act tasked the Authority with making safety and medication rules to promote safety and making those rules national, not specifically halting fatalities. The goal was to require states like Arizona, which has had a well-documented problem with higher-than-average fatalities and has outdated safety regulations, to come into line with states like California and Kentucky, which are among the strictest in these areas. It was also to bring together experts from a range of subject areas to constantly improve safety and medication rules based on data and scientific research, which is why they're monitoring the current Churchill situation so closely. And that's a good thing.

But the reality is that people wanted a centralized authority that would make racing safer. And “safer” means, on a practical level, something different to different people. I've always thought the Authority could do that, but maybe not immediately in the one way the public expected – by stopping these multiple fatality events from happening in the first place.

The Authority's racetrack safety arm tries to make the sport safer by codifying best practices and requiring all tracks to adhere to those practices in order to keep their legal ability to send out a simulcast signal. But in a state like Kentucky, a lot of those regulations were already in place before the Authority's existence. Between the state and the track, horses at Churchill are already subjected to pre-race veterinary examination, the required surface testing was already happening, and pre-race authorization from private veterinarians was already required. There's no evidence I'm aware of that the Authority's rules weren't followed this spring, and no reason they wouldn't have been, since they're not new to horsemen, vets, or track managers there.

That means that while Lazarus acknowledged the Authority could recommend Churchill pause racing if it found cause to do so, it can't independently choose to suspend racing there. It can (and is) leading discussion and investigation to try uncovering additional risk factors, and will probably use that information to inform the creation of new rules in the future. But if what you'd expected was either total prevention or unilateral control over an “emergency shutdown lever,” this solution is not that.

From a legal perspective, it's probably a challenging idea to map out a set of circumstances that could trigger an automatic shutdown of racing at a given facility. And rightly so. As Lazarus pointed out in a media call May 30, people's livelihoods rest on horses entering races and earning money. Many people live on the backstretch, which will only keep providing housing as long as horses are stabled there. A disruption in training/racing cycles could also, over time, alter a horse's skeletal remodeling and we don't know whether that would be a net loss for the horse's safety. It can't and probably shouldn't be that easy to bring things to a sudden, crashing halt.

But stakeholders must remember – these complexities don't seem relatable to much of the public, be they casual racing fans or once-a-year watchers of the Derby. They just want answers. And they want the breakdowns to stop.

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