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Preakness 2024: A year after fatal breakdown, racing regulators say sport is headed for safer future

It was a stomach-churning moment for anyone who cares about the Preakness Stakes or the broader state of thoroughbred racing.

As Havnameltdown sprinted around the far turn in the Chick Lang Stakes on last year’s Preakness undercard, the 3-year-old colt buckled and threw his rider, Luis Saez. Moments later, attendants erected a dark screen around Havnameltdown so patrons at Pimlico Race Course and viewers of NBC’s race coverage would not see a veterinarian give the horse, who had broken his left front fetlock, a euthanizing shot.

Organizers had yearned for a safe Preakness weekend as the sport reeled from seven deaths during Kentucky Derby week earlier that month. It was not to be.

A few hours later, Havnameltdown’s trainer, Bob Baffert, celebrated his record eighth Preakness win with National Treasure. That juxtaposition of triumph and death, all too familiar in a sport grasping for meaningful safety reforms, lingered for many who watched. Baffert himself described it as a “pretty sad day.”

A year later, Preakness organizers, federal regulators and the veterinarians charged with protecting these swift, fragile animals are again hoping to avoid any deaths as Baltimore hosts the second jewel of the Triple Crown. They’re optimistic the racing industry is moving in the right direction on safety issues but aware that one unlucky step could further erode public trust.

“When we were watching the Derby, my wife turned to me and said, ‘I’m holding my breath,'” said Alan Foreman, longtime general counsel to the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, who has helped shape responses to clusters of racehorse deaths in Maryland and New York. “It’s a very thin margin for error now. We’re doing everything we can, but we’re under a microscope.”

“There are a lot of eyes on it,” said Dr. Dionne Benson, chief veterinary officer for 1/ST Racing, which owns and operates Pimlico. “I honestly worry about every horse, every day. I think that’s our job.”

The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA), created by Congress to bring national regulatory oversight to a decentralized industry, has been operating for almost two years now with injury prevention as one of its chief goals.

Coming off a Derby week free of fatal breakdowns, HISA officials are confident that multi-layered veterinary protocols, uniform drug testing and a flood of data on risk factors will reduce the catastrophic injuries that have cast a pall over some of the sport’s most famous races and venues.

“I do feel there was so much effort and focus and work and commitment leading up to this year’s Derby — the things that were different that were in place certainly made a meaningful difference,” HISA CEO Lisa Lazarus said. “I do think there’s been a cultural shift. Folks always loved their horses, but there’s a genuine understanding that there’s an obligation to keep horses safe. If we can’t fulfill that, we don’t deserve to be a sport.”

2024 Preakness week | PHOTOS

Injury rates are generally down over the last 15 years, according to a database kept by The Jockey Club, a New York-based organization that promotes industry reform, but fatal injuries did increase from 1.25 per 1,000 starts in 2022 to 1.32 per 1,000 starts in 2023.

Safety is now a buzzword for everyone from prominent trainers to Hall of Fame jockeys, all of them aware that a fatal injury in one of the Triple Crown races could create an existential crisis for their sport. Kenny McPeek, who trains Derby winner Mystik Dan, cited it as a reason why he did not immediately commit to running his horse on just two weeks’ rest in the Preakness.

“I do think that the industry is so much more focused on, certainly, horse health,” McPeek said. “Which it’s always been, really. But we don’t want anything to go wrong on those types of days.”

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association, which lobbies for the industry, has run a series of “Safety Runs First” television advertisements ahead of the Triple Crown races, touting recent reforms and promising technological advances that might reduce breakdowns.

At the same time, those who have studied these issues for decades are reluctant to project too much confidence, because plenty of work remains in an effort that might never be complete. When horses die in clusters, as they did last spring at Kentucky’s Churchill Downs, the reasons are often difficult to pinpoint.

Havnameltdown’s case illustrates the difficult judgment calls at play in this quest for greater horse safety. The colt had been on California’s veterinarian’s list — meaning he was not allowed to race — for two weeks in April 2023 because he had medications injected in the joints of his hind limbs. Such injections are common and only barred by HISA in the two weeks before a race. The horse did not fail any drug tests and was cleared to run by his private veterinarian and the regulatory veterinarians who observed him at Pimlico.

But in a recent investigation of the deaths that beset last year’s Triple Crown series, The New York Times quoted two veterinarians who said Havnameltdown should not have been allowed to run on Preakness Day because of lesions on his fetlock joints that showed up in his necropsy.

Benson and Lazarus disagreed.

“Obviously, it’s gutting for everyone,” Benson said. “It’s difficult to say in retrospect, for certain. Intra-articular injections can be very appropriate if they’re done in the right way and for the correct reasons; I can tell you, I personally have six horses I ride, and it’s not unusual to inject the hocks from time to time. It would actually be easier for me to say, ‘Yes, there’s absolutely something I would have done differently.’ But it’s very difficult. Looking in hindsight, for sure we would want a different result, but there isn’t anything that sticks out in the record, per se, that would make me more cautious about that horse.”

HISA reviewed the breakdown, Lazarus said, and its veterinarians found no conclusive evidence from Havnameltdown’s necropsy.

“However, we didn’t have the tools then that we have now,” the HISA CEO added. “We didn’t have the benefit of all this aggregated information. We weren’t able to give the same support to the Maryland and 1/ST racing team that we’ll be able to do this year. So I think it was an unfortunate accident, but I also feel we have a lot more tools in place now. I’m hopeful that with what we have now, we would catch that that horse was at an increased risk.”

As Benson looked ahead to this year’s Preakness week, she noted that veterinary screening of horses expected to enter begins long before they arrive at Pimlico. They’re examined by their private veterinarians, observed at their home training tracks, then observed every day they train at Pimlico by veterinarians working either for the Maryland Racing Commission or the racetrack. Preakness horses are examined by regulatory veterinarians every morning starting the Wednesday before the race, with a certified surgeon on hand to consult if any questions arise. Benson’s staff is also using cameras guided by artificial intelligence to detect any abnormalities in the distinctive gaits of each horse.

“There are more checks on these horses going into the race than for an average race,” she said.

This is the first year HISA will govern medication testing for the Preakness, though Benson noted these federal regulations are similar to those used at Maryland’s tracks in recent years.

Both she and Lazarus predicted the flood of information coming from bio-tracking devices and artificial intelligence will improve decision making on horses that might be more vulnerable to serious injury.

“We launched, only about a month ago, a new predictive model that looks at 44 different risk factors to see if a horse is at an increased risk of injury,” Lazarus said. “And we give that information to the vets on the ground to help them in their inspections. The last piece of the puzzle is making sure the horses that get to the starting gate are fit to race.”

Havnameltdown’s death was the first on Preakness Day since 2016, when Homeboykris died after collapsing as he walked back to the barn following a win in the first race and Pramedya was euthanized after breaking her front left leg three races later.

Lazarus noted that Maryland’s recent safety record has been excellent since a cluster of fatal injuries in spring 2023 raised concerns about the racing surface at Laurel Park. The rate of fatal injuries was 0.82 per 1,000 starts at Laurel last year and 0.71 per 1,000 starts at Pimlico, both well below the national average.

“It’s a challenge, and it will always be a challenge, but I think we’re in a far better place than we’ve been in for a long time,” Foreman said.

Though many in racing are accustomed to breakdowns, acceptance of their inevitability is no longer the tone of the moment.

“We’re not done. Yes, we have improved things, we’ve gotten better, but there is room to improve,” Benson said. “Our goal has to be zero.”

149th Preakness Stakes

Pimlico Race Course

Saturday, approx. 6:50 p.m.

TV: NBC