Churchill Downs Ready for Opening with New Safety Initiatives

Posted By Jennifer Newell on May 13, 2020

The horse racing industry is collectively ready to resume racing. Since most racetracks have been closed for all business since sometime in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, every track is anxious to be in the spotlight again.

Churchill Downs is not only one of the most famous tracks in the world, it is one that has been pushing the hardest to reopen. Finally, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear gave that approval at the end of April, setting a reopening date for May 11. Albeit limited in scope it may be (accepting horses and no non-essential personnel), Churchill Downs was ready.

The 2020 Spring Meet is set to begin this weekend, on Saturday, May 16. Ahead of the festivities – again, limited – Churchill Downs opened the gates at 6am this Monday morning to welcome approximately 175 horses

In addition, Churchill Downs implemented new initiatives related to equine safety, ones approved months before but not able to be utilized until now.

February Initiative Details

Churchill Downs and Keeneland revealed that they agreed to apply several significant changes to their policies at both tracks. They announced the reforms on February 27.

There were numerous steps noted in the press release.

  • No race-day diuretic Lasix in two-year-old races.
  • Trainers must sign veterinary agreements with tracks.
  • Attending veterinarian must approve any horse within three days entering into a race.
  • Attending veterinarian must approve any horse within five days of training work.
  • Trainers and attending veterinarians must inform the track’s equine medical director of any changes in a horse’s fitness after an exam.
  • All horses away for extended periods (approximately 120 days) will be subject to veterinary inspections and monitoring.
  • Horses off for 180 days or more will be ineligible for claim if a horse enters for claiming price equal to or more than the last starting price.

The plan was to put these new measures into effect before Keeneland’s spring meet. Obviously, the coronavirus pandemic shut all Kentucky tracks before that could happen.

With Churchill Downs’ announcement of opening this week, this would be the track to first implement the safety changes.

Everyone Ready to Go

Churchill Downs Equine Medical Director Dr. William Farmer has been spending the past few weeks informing and explaining the safety changes. Everyone there and scheduled to arrive wanted to be ready to race as soon as possible. It was only one extra incentive for everyone from trainers to veterinarians to get things right.

Farmer told BloodHorse he took a lot of calls prior to the backstretch opening to answer questions about logistics. He added, “But overall, it’s been very well supported.”

The toughest rule to implement was obviously the inspections of horses away for long periods of time. Since most horses have not raced since early March or before and not been to Churchill Downs in at least two months, that put a lot on Farmer’s list of things to do.

In addition, Farmer now works out of the new equine medical center in the backstretch, one just completed this past winter. It was a significant part of the backstretch expansion. And the new quarantine barn space will come in particularly handy under new Covid-centric health protocols in place as the track reopens.

Safety is Paramount

The safety of all people and horses at tracks like Churchill as they reopen is of the utmost importance. Any coronavirus spread at a track would most certainly require another shutdown, and they have already seen how costly that can be.

Churchill Downs also wants to set an example for equine safety. This is as the number of horse deaths at California tracks already begin to add up in 2020.

Santa Anita Park counted 12 deaths at its facility by the end of April, and a 13th was just reported this week. The four-year-old gelding had just worked out on Sunday, May 10, under trainer Mike Puype.

Just a few days before, in Northern California, as Golden Gate Fields prepared to reopen its track for racing this week, a three-year-old gelding died. This was the 10th death at Golden Gate. While this hasn’t had a record of deaths like Santa Anita, it was still unfortunate.

With all eyes on the tracks reopening around America, the horse racing industry wants to show strength through safety protocols, not questions about equine safety.



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Jennifer Newell

Jennifer Newell is a freelance writer living in her hometown of St. Louis after stints in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. She has written about poker for more than 15 years but added other forms of gambling and horse racing to her repertoire in the last few years. She grew up with a love for horse racing from her now-late father, who loved to play the ponies. Jennifer can be found on Twitter at @writerjen.

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