Trainers’ opinions vary on safety, tragedy at Churchill Downs

Trainers’ opinions vary on safety, tragedy at Churchill Downs
Photo: Scott Serio / Eclipse Sportswire

Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey did not pull any punches when he was asked about race-day scratches like the one last Saturday that locked out early Kentucky Derby betting favorite Forte.

“I thought that that was very much overkill,” he told reporters this week on a National Thoroughbred Racing Association conference call.

McGaughey also was keenly aware of the seven horse deaths in the days and even the hours preceding the Derby. He also knew about The New York Times revelation that Forte failed a drug test last summer after a Saratoga victory that since was erased by disqualification only this week. Yet he still felt the abundance of caution exhibited by Kentucky racing authorities last weekend went a step too far, especially since one of his horses was pinged.

Lazarus: Federal authority is investigating Derby week.

“I think there is some over-caution. I think it’s overdone a little bit,” McGaughey said. “I think that there’s probably a tremendous amount of pressure on all these regulatory vets to kind of make the right decision, but I do think that they need to kind of go into it with more eyes open than maybe they are.”

It was Nick Smith, a Kentucky Horse Racing Commission veterinarian who last Saturday examined Forte’s right-front foot, the one that had been bruised in training last week. That led Smith to order Forte to stand down from the Derby.

McGaughey felt KHRC doctors should not ignore what connections are telling them.

“I kind of grew up when a jock felt something a little funny, jogging back to the gate, then you ask the vets to maybe watch his horse jog up and down a time or two, and the vet would either agree with them or disagree with them,” McGaughey said. “Then he will scratch him or say he looks all right to me. Now it’s the vet standing out the middle of the racetrack making the decision instead of the jock.”

McGaughey’s 3-year-old colt Talk of the Nation, 10-1 on the morning line, was examined and scratched last Saturday before he could race in the American Turf Stakes (G2) on the Derby undercard.

“My rider (Tyler Gaffalione) asked the vet, ‘Please, don’t scratch this horse,’” McGaughey said. “There was nothing the matter with him, and they scratched him, and I thought that was very much overkill.”

In an open letter Friday, Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority CEO Lisa Lazarus pointed out “the KHRC is leading an equine catastrophic-injury Review to investigate the circumstances of and potential contributing factors to each of the fatalities that occurred.”

Lazarus also said, “HISA will conduct its own independent investigation of each fatality to inform whether additional steps need to be taken.” That investigation will include a review of each of the seven horse’s veterinary records, Churchill Downs fatality rates and racecourse maintenance as well as interviews with connections, doctors and track management.

“HISA’s findings, including the determination of whether any rule violations occurred to refer for potential enforcement proceedings, will be made public following the investigation’s conclusion,” Lazarus said.

Other trainers who had separate Q&A sessions on this week’s NTRA teleconference were not as strong in their opinions as McGaughey. Fellow Hall of Famer trainer Steve Asmussen was more circumspect.

“We were very fortunate with Disarm, who we ran (in the Derby), no worries there,” Asmussen said. For those like Pletcher and McGaughey who had to absorb late scratches, he said, “Bad timing. Unfortunate circumstances. Who knows? Intense pressure. There’s just a tremendous amount of variables that I think went into the week and the decisions that were made.”

Brad Cox, the two-time champion trainer who ran four horses in the Derby, admitted he, too, was worried about the recent spike in deaths at Churchill Downs. Like Asmussen, though, he spoke of his own priorities.

“My job is to take care of the horses that are under my care, obviously,” Cox said. “It is concerning. It’s one of those things where you just do your best to send out a happy, healthy horse.

“We as a whole had a great Derby week. I think we made 21 starts, whether it was turf or dirt. I was happy with all of our horses and how they came out of their races. I think some of them are tired, but they ran, they ran hard, and they’re tired. Overall, I was pleased with how my horses came out of their races, physically. That’s really all I can focus on is just my horses.”

Cox did, however, did not ignore the alarm sounded by a majority of the public that is not wired into horse racing year round.

“I understand it is a concern from the racing fan and just someone that really doesn’t know much about the sport that’s looking at it,” he said. “They’re concerned that the perception is kind of how it looks. But you know, once again, I just have to focus on my horses and just doing right by the group of horses we have in training.”

McGaughey also said he was not discounting the deaths at Churchill Downs or others in Kentucky this spring.

“I do think it’s very concerning about what went on at Churchill last week,” McGaughey said. “I don’t know that we’ll ever get to the bottom of it. Seven deaths in a week, and they had three at Keeneland. That made 10 deaths that we know about in a month, and that’s too many. I don’t think it’s anything we should keep in the closet. We need to be very transparent about what’s going on.”

McGaughey may have spoken then for racing fans everywhere who have heard from acquaintances wondering why so many horses were dying.

"I’ve got friends outside of racing, and my wife does, too, and they’re texting, ‘What’s going on?’ ” he said. “They don’t want to hear that. That’s something we’re going to have to address, but I do think in a lot of instances there’s a bit of overkill in what they’re looking for.”


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