Brown: Churchill Downs' September Meet needs to get safety right — for future of horse racing

Churchill Downs’ September Meet will be the most watched in track history — regardless of how many people fill the stands or tune into racing streams.

After 12 horse deaths in the Spring Meet caused racing to be suspended and moved from Churchill Downs to Ellis Park, all eyes will be on the venerable track the next couple of weeks to see if increased scrutiny of, and sensitivity to, safety measures help prevent more deaths.

They've got to get this thing right.

The future of the horse racing industry may depend on it.

Those who are entrenched in horse racing have reasoned that a certain amount of horse deaths during a given cycle is normal. Animal rights groups have been on this parade of just how unacceptable it is, and they are starting to have their voices heard more and more by casual fans of the sport that cringe every time a horse has to be put down.

For the deaths to occur at Churchill Downs, the most recognizable brand in horse racing, and to have a Kentucky Derby entrant die (Wild on Ice) as well as a horse die (Chloe's Dream) in Race 2 leading up to the Run for the Roses on Derby Day, well, you can see why this meet is so important. The deaths from racing must stop.

“Horses dying is not OK; no one really thinks it’s OK,” said Lisa Lazarus, the chief executive officer of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority. “We are going to do better as an industry, and I think we’ve made a very significant step forward today.”

Lazarus spoke to reporters Tuesday after HISA released its findings into the deaths from the spring. There was no “smoking gun” or singular factor that caused the deaths.

It wasn’t the track surface. It wasn’t medication. It wasn’t the trainers.

That’s either great news or considerably troubling, depending on your perspective.

The multifactorial nature of the deaths almost makes it seem like it was just unfortunate timing that they happened to cluster together. The question then is how do you stop the deaths?

Lazarus said it’ll take a multipronged response.

“This is for certain an all-hands-on-deck moment,” Lazarus said. “There’s no one stakeholder group that’s responsible for the fatalities, and so no one stakeholder can take the responsibility for solving the issue.”

The September Meet runs until Oct. 1. If more deaths occur at the pace they did in the spring, it would pave the way for more drastic oversight of the sport that could leave things on the brink of elimination. Think that's an exaggeration? No one in horse racing wants to call that bluff.

HISA wasn't created by Congress because everyone was content with safety measures in the sport.

There’s already been a reluctance from some inside the industry to work with HISA because it was conceived through legislation and forced upon horse racing instead of organically created.

There are currently several lawsuits challenging whether the organization has the authority to make any changes beyond just recommendations. To its credit, Churchill Downs has been willing to at least listen.

At the behest of HISA, Churchill suspended its Spring Meet so the investigation could take place without interfering with the race schedule or preventing an honest examination of the track.

Churchill Downs had already adapted some of the safety measures listed in the report. It plans on increasing veterinary oversight and brought in new surface maintenance equipment in order to increase surface testing. There are also plans to create a new safety management committee for feedback in real time.

Will it be enough?

The entire horse racing industry sure hopes it will. The public will be watching.

Reach sports columnist C.L. Brown at, follow him on X at @CLBrownHoops and subscribe to his newsletter at to make sure you never miss one of his columns.

September Meet: Everything you need to know as live horse racing returns to Churchill Downs

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Horse deaths at Churchill Downs 2023: September Meet is key for racing