Fed regulators push Churchill Downs to move races to Ellis

Fed regulators push Churchill Downs to move races to Ellis
Photo: Ron Flatter

After a spate of horse deaths in the past five weeks and under pressure from federal regulators, Churchill Downs will move its current spring-summer racing meet to Ellis Park beginning next Saturday, track management confirmed in a written statement Friday afternoon.

“Even though the investigations and expert reports have indicated no surface issues, in an abundance of caution, and in alignment with a recommendation from the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, Churchill Downs Inc. has elected to relocate the meet in order to conduct a top-to-bottom review of all safety and surface protocols and integrity measures in collaboration and consultation with nationwide experts,” the statement said.

This weekend, races still will be run as scheduled Saturday and Sunday at Churchill Downs before the rest of the meet is transferred. Racing originally scheduled for Wednesday-Friday, June 7-9, will not be conducted at either venue.

A Churchill Downs spokesperson told Horse Racing Nation that training will be allowed to continue at the track after racing is suspended.

A Louisville, Ky.-based trainer and another source with knowledge of the situation first told HRN about the move early Friday afternoon.

The condition book will remain the same, and the trainer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the Churchill Downs racing office promised assistance with travel to Ellis Park, which is 134 miles west via Interstate 64 in Henderson, Ky., south of Evansville, Ind.

Click here for Churchill Downs entries and results.

“By relocating the remainder of the meet to Ellis Park, we are able to maintain this industry ecosystem with only minor disruption,” said Bill Carstanjen, CEO of CDI. “We are grateful to the Kentucky horsemen for their support, resiliency and continued partnership as we collectively work to find answers during this time.”

“Churchill Downs requested a voluntary move of their operations to Ellis. Out of an abundance of caution for the safety of all racing participants, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission approved the move,” a KHRC spokesperson said. “The KHRC is working closely with Churchill and HISA on continuing investigations into the recent equine fatalities.”

Twelve horses have died after training or racing at Churchill since April 27, when Kentucky Derby contender Wild On Ice broke down following a workout.

“What has happened at our track is deeply upsetting and absolutely unacceptable,” Carstanjen said. “Despite our best efforts to identify a cause for the recent horse injuries, and though no issues have been linked to our racing surfaces or environment at Churchill Downs, we need to take more time to conduct a top-to-bottom review of all of the details and circumstances so that we can further strengthen our surface, safety and integrity protocols.”

A HISA statement late Friday afternoon concurred with the lack of a common denominator for the 12 deaths. It also outlined how it called for a suspension of racing at Churchill Downs.

“Given that no cohesive explanation has been identified for this unusually high number of fatalities, HISA has recommended that racing be temporarily suspended to allow time to more clearly identify the factor(s) contributing to these fatalities as well as tangible interventions to prevent them in the future,” the statement said.

After calling on former Santa Anita track superintendent Dennis Moore to inspect the racing surfaces at Churchill Downs, HISA agreed with track management that there were no problems apparent in the condition of the dirt and turf.

“After conducting his own inspection of the surface and reviewing data collected by Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory and Churchill Downs, (Moore) reported there were no primary areas for concern and has verified that the various track metrics analyzed are consistent with previous years,” the HISA statement said.

Track inspections also were conducted by Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. After those, HISA held an emergency summit this week, after which the company and organization jointly announced new safety measures that will be retained at Ellis Park. They include the end of purse and bonus payments for finishing worse than fifth place, a limit of four races per horse in any eight-week period and a restriction on entering runners who failed to finish within 12 lengths of the winner in their last five starts.

“Horsemen question the purpose of this unprecedented step, especially without conclusive evidence that there is a problem with the racetrack at Churchill Downs,” said Rick Hiles, president of the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. “We all want to find solutions that will improve safety for horses. However, we need to discuss allowing trainers and veterinarians to use therapeutic medications that greatly lessen the risk of breakdowns. Drastic steps, such as relocating an active race meet, should only be considered when it is certain to make a difference.”

Another Kentucky horsemen's group, the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association and Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders, was more complimentary of the process.

“Churchill consulted us, and we’re thankful that no one is playing the blame game,” KTA-KTOB executive director Chauncey Morris said. “We believe this is the right call. We’ve been racing horses in Kentucky for more than two centuries. We have demonstrated accountability to fans, horseplayers and ourselves.”

Churchill Downs Inc. acquired Ellis Park for $79 million last year, and the 2023 summer meet was to be the first under the company's banner since 2006. That was when it sold the track affectionately known as the Pea Patch to Ron Geary, who later sold the facility in 2018.

“In addition to our commitment to providing the safest racing environment for our participants, we have an immense responsibility as the economic engine of the Thoroughbred industry in Kentucky, which provides jobs and income for thousands of families every day,” Carstanjen said.

There are four Grade 3 races Saturday and another Sunday at Churchill Downs. A nine-race card was drawn for Wednesday, but it has been abandoned along with the scheduled Thursday and Friday cards.

The current meet runs through July 3. The Matt Winn (G3) on June 11 would be run at Ellis Park, although it is in the condition book at 1 1/16 miles, a distance that is not available there. There was no immediate indication if the race will be out of the mile chute or once around the 1 1/8-mile main track.

The Chicago (G3) on June 24 will happen at Ellis as will the July 1 card featuring the Stephen Foster, which will be the 101-year-old track’s first-ever Grade 1 race. The Fleur de Lis (G2) and Wise Dan (G2) also will be July 1.

Ellis Park will maintain its traditional summer schedule with its normal meet set for July 7-Aug. 27.

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