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COVID-19 Coverage

Multiple horse deaths before the Kentucky Derby reignites scrutiny about the sport

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Like many people, I watched the Kentucky Derby on TV over the weekend. And amid the pageantry and the clothes and the hats, the TV announcers briefly noted that seven horses died at Churchill Downs in the days before the event. What happened? Wall Street Journal sports editor Jim Chairusmi joins us. Good morning.

JIM CHAIRUSMI: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Let's start with the basics. How did these seven horses die?

CHAIRUSMI: Well, the circumstances were different for some of these deaths. We don't know yet the causes, but two of the horses collapsed following a race and died. And both horses happened to be trained by the same guy, Saffie Joseph Jr. So Churchill Downs came down and suspended him indefinitely.

INSKEEP: OK, so a couple of them just collapsed, cause unknown. There were a couple of broken legs also, is that right?

CHAIRUSMI: Correct, correct. And, you know, horses aren't like people. They can't have bed rest. If a horse can't stand, unfortunately, they have to euthanize them.

INSKEEP: So I'd like to know, is it normal that in a handful of days before a race you would have seven horses die at the same track?

CHAIRUSMI: No. I mean, I think that's why we're talking, because it's an abnormal number. And it's a high-profile event, the biggest week of the year for horse racing. And two days after the Kentucky Derby, we're not talking about the winner, Mage.

INSKEEP: I feel like we're talking about two different things here as well. One is, I guess you'd say, a fragile breed, right? Thoroughbreds are bred for speed rather than durability, necessarily. And then there's the whole question of doping to look into.

CHAIRUSMI: Correct, correct.

INSKEEP: So what safeguards are in place to ensure that horses are as safe as they can be?

CHAIRUSMI: Well, I think that's a big problem. I mean, the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority - or HISA - was formed recently to create a uniform set of rules for the sport. But currently, there's not a uniform set of rules. There's 38 states that have horse racing. Each state has their own rules and regulations. And that's where we're seeing the problem.

INSKEEP: Granting that there are different rules in different places, what generally are the rules for doping, drugs that horses can be given?

CHAIRUSMI: Well, there's - you know, there's different rules about how much medication a horse can have, either zero tolerance or a little bit, race day medication. It depends on the quality of the horse. There really isn't consistent rules across the sport.

INSKEEP: I want to recall that in 2019 - it's a before-the-pandemic memory, so it might be foggy for some people. But in 2019, more than 40 horses died in a short period at the Santa Anita racetrack in Southern California. Ultimately, I think, no one was held responsible for that. But there were efforts at reform. Are things any better or different than they were four years ago?

CHAIRUSMI: Yes, things have changed. They stiffened the rules. They changed the rules on medication, race day medication. And the jockeys are not allowed to whip the horses as many times as they used to. We have seen a reduction in numbers. I think it was only about a dozen horses died last year at Santa Anita. So we have seen some progress.

INSKEEP: Are there loud voices questioning whether horse racing is simply safe enough for the animals?

CHAIRUSMI: Absolutely. You know, when these things happen, the animal welfare groups speak up. And when people are paying attention to the sport and this happens, it's not a good sign for the sport.

INSKEEP: And so that's really what is distinct here, is not only that the horses died, because that is happening, but that it happened at such a high-profile moment.

CHAIRUSMI: Correct.

INSKEEP: Jim, thanks so much, really appreciate it.

CHAIRUSMI: Thanks a lot.

INSKEEP: Jim Chairusmi is a sports editor for The Wall Street Journal.

(SOUNDBITE OF NILS FRAHM'S "AMBRE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.