Deaths at the Kentucky Derby bring changes ahead of the 150th edition at Churchill Downs (2024)

Memories are made at the Kentucky Derby, most of them good. Whether cashing a winning ticket, sipping mint juleps or marveling at the horses, crowds pack Churchill Downs to experience a bucket list sporting event.

Many left last year in tears, anger and questioning the safety of the sport after 12 horses died at the historic track in the days surrounding the race, including two on Derby day when racing enjoys its biggest attendance and highest TV ratings of the year.

“You can’t ever be too safe when it comes to our sport,” two-time Derby-winning jockey Mike Smith said.

Deaths occurred at other major racing venues last year, too, in what become a tragic theme for the sport.

The number of deaths in the United States increased slightly in 2023 from the year before, according to data tracked by the Equine Injury Database and reported by HISA. HISA said there were 1.32 deaths per 1,000 starts last year, up from 1.25 the previous year. The number at the 50 HISA-accredited tracks was 1.23 per 1,000, compared with 1.63 at others across the country.

“We’re encouraged by that progress,” said Lisa Lazarus, CEO of HISA, “but we certainly have a whole lot more work to do.”

A review of 14 horse deaths at Saratoga in upstate New York last summer found no definitive cause for why they happened, although heavy rainfall could have contributed.

Investigations by Churchill Downs and the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) — the sport’s new governing body — didn’t identify one common cause for the deaths around the Derby.

“When we say that there’s not one singular factor that caused the breakdowns, it doesn’t mean that we don’t know what the risk factors are that contribute to breakdowns,” Lazarus said. “Those are things we’ve been working on very hard.”

The deaths prompted Churchill Downs to make several changes to its safety program ahead of the 150th Derby on Saturday.

The track upgraded equipment used to harrow and grade the dirt surface, with increased testing to measure safety and consistency. The cushion is measured in spots around the track and moisture content is checked throughout racing days to decide the watering schedule.

“The track is a lot different than it was. It’s got more sand in it now, it’s got more base, more cushion,” said 88-year-old Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who saddles Just Steel in the Derby. “It’s quite a bit deeper. Horses are getting over it good.”

Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, who has Resilience in the Derby, likes Churchill's dirt strip when it's dry. There is a 40% chance of rain on Derby day.

“I don’t like it as much when it’s wet,” he said. “It does not handle water as well as it used to, probably because of a lack of sand in it. Hopefully, we get good normal conditions and I think we’re looking at a good race track.”

The New York Racing Association — which runs the Belmont Stakes, racing’s third leg of the Triple Crown — is studying the feasibility of adopting all-weather surfaces at tracks nationwide.

Churchill Downs added an equine safety and integrity veterinarian to help enforce its rules. Fifteen vets from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission joined the track’s vet team to observe horses this week before, during and after training and in their stalls after they arrive.

A new safety management committee comprised of trainers, exercise riders, jockeys, track management and vets meets weekly to discuss concerns and provide feedback on areas for improvement.

All horses racing at Churchill Downs wear StrideSAFE biometric sensors that detect changes in their gaits to help spot inconsistencies or early signs of a potential developing injury. The track installed a PET unit for diagnostic imaging, only the second such machine permanently located at a U.S. racetrack.

Realizing the effect last year's deaths had on the public, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association has launched a national advertising campaign called “Safety Runs First” to explain what the industry is doing to improve equine safety.

NTRA president and CEO Tom Rooney points to HISA, as well as investments in new diagnostic technologies, advanced data analytics and veterinary and track surface protocols, as “a testament to our collective dedication to enhancing safety practices within the industry.”

HISA took effect in July 2022 to implement national standards for safety at racetracks, replacing the patchwork rules of the 38 racing states. Its antidoping and medication control program didn’t start until late May 2023, after last year’s Derby and Preakness, where one of trainer Bob Baffert’s horses was injured in a race and was euthanized.

Trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. was suspended and had his Derby horse scratched ahead of last year’s race after the sudden deaths of two of his horses at Churchill Downs. He was reinstated when an investigation showed no wrongdoing on his part.

“It proved that we handled things correctly,” he said. “Why did it happen? We don’t know. We didn’t have answers. It knocks you down and it’s something you carry the rest of your life. We’re thankful to be back.”

Joseph will saddle long shot Catalytic on Saturday.

HISA has been dogged by legal challenges from groups of horsem*n opposing the new rules and frustration from those eager for national uniform rules in the sport. Still, many see progress being made, even as it’s come in fits and starts.

“It’s been a little bit sloppy and all over the place,” two-time Derby-winning trainer Doug O’Neill said, “but I do think the sport has evolved into a safer sport.”

Smith, who isn’t participating Saturday but has ridden in a record 28 Derbies, has adjusted to the additional scrutiny.

“It’s a wonderful, beautiful, beautiful game, but it can also be very dangerous,” he said. “We certainly need all these protocols.”

AP Sports Writer Gary B. Graves in Louisville, Kentucky, contributed to this report.

AP horse racing:

Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

Deaths at the Kentucky Derby bring changes ahead of the 150th edition at Churchill Downs (2024)


Who won the 150th Kentucky Derby? ›

Mystik Dan, the horse who won the Kentucky Derby by a nose in the race's closest finish in more than a half-century, is heading to the Preakness next weekend after all, keeping alive the chance of another Triple Crown winner.

How is the 150th Kentucky Derby? ›

Mystik Dan wins 150th Kentucky Derby by a nose in the closest 3-horse photo finish since 1947. LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — The 150th Kentucky Derby produced one of the most dramatic finishes in its storied history — three noses at the wire.

Who is the biggest upset in Kentucky Derby history? ›

Rich Strike wasn't the largest underdog to ever win the Kentucky Derby, but it was the biggest upset in 109 years. Donerail's 1913 win as a 91-1 longshot still stands alone as the biggest upset in the history of horse racing's biggest event.

How much does it cost to go to the Kentucky Derby? ›

Tickets can be purchased directly from the Kentucky Derby official website. An Infield General Admission ticket, which gets you in the door, costs $130. This is as basic as basic admission gets for the Derby.

What year is the 150th Kentucky Derby? ›

Discover the reenvisioned Paddock at Churchill Downs, debuting for the 150th Anniversary of the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks in 2024. Enjoy spectacular views of the Paddock from dining experiences such as The 1895 Club, Woodford Reserve Paddock Club, and Silks Balcony.

Who has the most Kentucky Derby wins? ›

With five Kentucky Derby wins apiece, jockeys Eddie Arcaro and Bill Hartack share the record for most Derbies won over the course of a career.

What horse won the 2024 Kentucky Derby? ›

Mystik Dan won the 2024 Kentucky Derby with a winning time 2:03.24 on Saturday, May 4, 2024.

Who won the Kentucky Derby today in 2024? ›

Mystik Dan (18-1), is the winner in the 2024 Kentucky Derby in an absolutely stunning photo finish. It took several minutes to sort out an official winner, with Mystik Dan, Forever Young and Sierra Leone crossing the finish line just fractions apart.

What Kentucky Derby winner was slaughtered? ›

He entered stud in 1989 and was later sold to a breeding farm in Japan in 1994. Much to the outrage of many horse racing enthusiasts, reports indicate that in 2002, Ferdinand was sent to slaughter in Japan with no fanfare or notice to previous owners. He likely became either pet food or steaks for human consumption.

What Derby winner broke his leg? ›

Barbaro (April 29, 2003 – January 29, 2007) was a champion American Thoroughbred racehorse who won the 2006 Kentucky Derby but shattered his leg two weeks later in the Preakness Stakes which ended his racing career and eventually led to the decision to euthanize him.

What color was regret Kentucky Derby? ›


Can a woman wear pants to the Kentucky Derby? ›

Yes, a woman can wear pants to the Kentucky Derby. In recent years, the dress code has become more flexible, allowing for greater variety in attire. While dresses and skirts are traditional choices, many women now opt for tailored pantsuits or dressy trousers paired with elegant blouses or tops.

Do Kentucky Derby tickets include food? ›

Buy All-Inclusive Derby Week Tickets

For Derby Week 2024, many of our Premium Dining Rooms and Suites will include food, non-alcoholic beverages, and alcoholic beverages.

Do you need cash at the Kentucky Derby? ›

Kentucky state law prohibits betting with a credit card, which means "cash is king" at the Derby. Although there are plenty of ATMs on the premises, lines can understandably get rather long as spectators line up to place their wagers, so it's best to come prepared.

Who won the 200th Derby? ›

Willie Carson winning the 200th Derby on Troy at Epsom.

Who just won the Kentucky Derby? ›

Mystik Dan, the horse who won the Kentucky Derby by a nose in the race's closest finish in more than a half-century, is heading to the Preakness next weekend after all, keeping alive the chance of another Triple Crown winner.

Who won the Kentucky Derby this year? ›

Did anyone win the Kentucky Derby? ›

In an extraordinary photo finish, Mystik Dan emerged victorious at the 150th running of the Kentucky Derby Saturday evening at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. Mystik Dan entered the 20-horse race with 18-1 odds.

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Margart Wisoky

Last Updated:

Views: 6776

Rating: 4.8 / 5 (78 voted)

Reviews: 93% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Margart Wisoky

Birthday: 1993-05-13

Address: 2113 Abernathy Knoll, New Tamerafurt, CT 66893-2169

Phone: +25815234346805

Job: Central Developer

Hobby: Machining, Pottery, Rafting, Cosplaying, Jogging, Taekwondo, Scouting

Introduction: My name is Margart Wisoky, I am a gorgeous, shiny, successful, beautiful, adventurous, excited, pleasant person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.