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HomeHorse RacingChurchill DownsIn Unprecedented Move, Churchill Downs Meet Move to Ellis Park

In Unprecedented Move, Churchill Downs Meet Move to Ellis Park

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I’ve seen a lot of wow in horse racing. This is an all-timer.

As a co-host on the Horse Racing Happy Hour podcast, I’ve gotten to be at some exceptional races with exceptional performances by equine athletes. Rich Strike winning the Derby at 80-1; American Pharoah dominating the Preakness while carrying 20 extra pounds of water; Flightline putting away a very good Breeder’s Cup Classic field at Keeneland with ease.

But this is a different kind of wow. The very idea that Churchill Downs – home of the Kentucky Derby since 1875 – having such track issues they couldn’t have a turf course in 2022, and now have to vacate their dirt course in favor of a move to a track “affectionately” called the Pea Patch.

But that’s where we are.

The world’s a different place, especially with how the American public views the racing of animals: in general, they’re against it. Greyhound racing has largely dried up in the U.S. (only Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, and West Virginia allow it), and it’s easy to see a path where Americans outside the sport eventually come to a similar opinion about the sport of thoroughbred racing.

The one spot that usually rallies the general public around horse racing? Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, the annual focal point of the sport for the Kentucky Derby.

So, here’s the dilemma: do you admit there’s a track issue, and move the races, or do you admit there was a racing incentive issue? Kentucky Derby 150 is coming up in 11 months; there were virtually no ads for Derby 149 this year, yet Churchill Downs was littered with ads for next year. The ticket office is pushing so hard for 150 that many of the upper-level ticket packages were tied to buying seat licenses for next spring.

I’m of the opinion that many of the horses who broke down were ones that shouldn’t have been racing. Churchill Downs yesterday announced the elimination of a few incentive programs: trainer start incentives (based on the total number of starters), and Churchill, unlike other tracks, was paying all the way down to last place. This incentivized, perhaps, trainers to run horses to simply get a check. I thought eliminating both of the these incentives was a good move, and I thought it would have a long-term positive effect.

Only one of the fatal injuries – and it was a significant one – was during a workout: Wild On Ice, a prospective Derby starter, was euthanized the week before the Derby after sustaining a bone fracture. My sense is the overwhelming number of fatalities was by horses that should’ve taken a race off.

In a release from Darren Rogers, VP of communications at Churchill, while there were no discernable track issues at Churchill Downs, on the recommendation of HISA – the Horse Racing Integrity Safety Act, a new federal program – the inspection of the track is forcing a move to Ellis Park for the remainder of the meet. Saturday, June 10 will begin Ellis’ hosting of the meet; Churchill will run this weekend.

And there it is – the new era of thoroughbred racing: the Feds step in, and even with no discernable track issues, the move takes place. Americans will not tolerate this level of death amongst equine athletes, and this move indicates precisely that.

Here’s to hoping there’s a clean meet at Ellis, and that Derby 150 is unaffected.

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