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As horse racing’s elite saddle up for the final race of the coveted Triple Crown at New York’s Belmont Stakes, the sport’s top trainers will face off for their share of the $1.5 million purse at the lavish, star-studded event – amid growing scrutiny after a recent spate of horse deaths.
A CNN analysis of disciplinary records found that the top earning trainers in the sport – whose thoroughbreds win them millions of dollars – have all broken rules meant to keep their horses safe. Trainers slapped with violations have continued racing, pocketing winnings while paying minimal fines.
Records show that horse racing’s most successful trainers have violated the sport’s rules multiple times over the course of thousands of races across decades-long careers. The violations range from failed drug tests on race day to falsifying a trainer license. At least three of the trainers have horses competing at the Belmont Stakes this weekend.
Many of the violations center on the use of drugs that could mask pain prior to a race, potentially leading racehorses – bred for speed with spindly legs – to run on preexisting injuries that increase the risk of fatal breakdowns on the tracks. Researchers have found that about 90% of fatal horse injuries involve preexisting issues, such as small fractures that weaken horses’ bones.
While therapeutic medications are often legal for treating horses, several are banned on race day.
“If a horse has an anti-inflammatory, it could compromise an inspection,” said Dr. Jennifer Durenberger, a veterinarian with the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, the national regulatory body established in 2020. “It’s one of the reasons we do restrict medications in the pre-race period.”
In many ways, the violations say more about the sport than the trainers themselves. Historically, drug limits and rules have varied from state to state, and punishments, which typically led to fines of a few hundred dollars, seemed more like slaps on the wrists than true deterrents. Trainers suspended from one racetrack were still able to compete on others.
Horse racing reform advocates, and even some trainers, say that national standards for drug violations will help with compliance and improve horse safety.
Trainers and their representatives interviewed by CNN, however, largely dismissed their disciplinary records, citing unaccredited testing labs, sensitive testing which picks up on minute traces of medication and inconsistent rules among tracks that led to mistakes often beyond their control. They also say the violations must be placed in the context of the thousands of races their horses have started.
Tragedy at the track
It was supposed to be a triumphant comeback for legendary horse trainer Bob Baffert, but his Preakness Stakes win was underscored by tragedy.
Just hours before a horse he trained, National Treasure, won the second-leg of the Triple Crown last month, Baffert’s powerful bay-colored colt, Havnameltdown, suffered an injury to its fore fetlock, the equivalent of an ankle, during an earlier race that day. A veterinarian deemed the injury “non-operable,” leaving the three-year-old horse to be euthanized on the track. The Maryland Racing Commission is investigating the death.
During his short life, Havnameltdown earned $708,000 in prize money for his handlers, including Baffert, who has said the horse got “hit pretty hard” by another horse coming out of the starting gate.
The Maryland race marked Baffert’s anticipated return to a Triple Crown race – the first since his 2021 Kentucky Derby win was disqualified after his horse, Medina Spirit, failed a post-race drug test. Baffert was cited by the state horse racing commission and Churchill Downs handed him a suspension that banned him from the next two Derby races.
Medina Spirit pictured after winning the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby on May 1, 2021 at Churchill Downs. - Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images/FILE
The drug test revealed that Medina Spirit had betamethasone in his system. The drug is legal for horses in Kentucky, but state rules don’t allow any detectable levels on race day. Baffert disputed the test result and appealed the commission’s citation.
During his suspension, Baffert continued to race at other tracks and claimed his cut of millions in prize money. Months after the Derby, Medina Spirit died while training at California’s Santa Anita Park; the necropsy report was inconclusive.
Equine deaths are quite common – hundreds die on and off the track annually. The root cause of what can bring down a massive, muscular horse can range from the natural to the exploitive, including being overworked and overdrugged in the quest for winnings.
But while some deaths are difficult to prevent, the recent spate of tragedies, especially ones like the public euthanasia of Havnameltdown, have cast a dark shadow over the multi-billion-dollar industry.
In the span of a month, 12 horses died at Churchill Downs, Kentucky’s most prominent track, since the stable opened this season. The track has suspended racing there while the fatalities are investigated.
Bob Baffert-trained horse Havnameltdown, behind the curtain, had to be euthanized on May 20, 2023, during the sixth race of Preakness Day in Baltimore. - Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service/Getty Images/FILE
The deaths sparked public outrage and thrust the industry back into the national spotlight just a week after HISA rolled out regulations that include medication control.
But that’s done little to assuage critics’ concerns over the treatment of horses in what was once called the sport of kings.
“All of it sounds really impressive and it’s quite a show, but that’s all it is: A show. Meanwhile, the horses continue to die,” said Patrick Battuello, an advocate who has tracked horse deaths for the last decade. “The killing is built into the system. … In what other sport are the athletes drugged and doped without their consent?”
The absolute insurers
Defenders of the sport argue that the number of horse racing deaths have declined in recent years, and that the industry is safer than it ever was. They point to falling annual death counts collected by The Jockey Club, an influential industry organization, which reports the number of horses who die or are euthanized after racing injuries. The group has tallied several hundred racing deaths each year, with 328 in 2022, down from 709 a decade earlier.
But those numbers don’t include horses who die during training or between races, which critics argue leads to a severe undercounting of deaths in the sport. They also only include thoroughbred horses, not quarter horses and standardbred horses. Battuello has tallied more than 9,500 racehorses that died since 2014, largely based on death records he’s collected from state horse racing commissions – roughly 1,000 a year.
While the exact rules vary from state to state, trainers are generally required to report horse deaths that occur at racetracks or as a result of injuries sustained during races. Most deaths are categorized as racing-related or training-related.
In a statement, The Jockey Club argued that its numbers were “the most accurate data possible” and noted that it had different criteria for including racing-related deaths than Battuello.
The sport’s highest-earning trainers were among those who had the most horses die at racetracks or due to racing injuries, according to a CNN analysis of state records collected by Battuello over the last decade, as well as data from the horse racing website Equibase.
Some prominent trainers saw far more of their horses die during training than in actual races. CNN’s review found that Todd Pletcher, who’s earned more than any horse trainer in the industry over the course of his career, has trained at least 38 horses whose deaths were reported to state racing commissions since 2014.
Trainer Todd Pletcher watches a workout at Churchill Downs Tuesday, May 2, 2023, in Louisville, Kentucky. - Charlie Riedel/AP/FILE
More than three-fourths of those deaths were related to training, not racing, according to Battuello’s count – meaning that Pletcher largely avoided the national spotlight shone on deaths that took place during prominent races like the Preakness or Belmont.
Similarly, four of the seven deceased horses trained by Baffert that CNN documented did not die as a direct result of injuries sustained during races, and thus likely wouldn’t be included in the official tally of deaths counted by The Jockey Club.
CNN’s review is an undercount of deaths because it only counted deaths reportable to state commissions. The review connected horses to their most recent trainer of record as of their last race – so it’s possible that some of the horses could have moved to a different trainer before their deaths.
Horse trainers bear the ultimate responsibility for the wellbeing of the horse and adherence to the rules on the track, an industry standard known as the “absolute insurer rule.”
“We are completely responsible for the horses. When they arrive on the racetrack that day, we’re responsible for what’s going into that horse, whether it’s medication or feed,” said Graham Motion, a 30-year horse trainer in Maryland. “That has to be our responsibility. There’s no other way really to make it work.”
The most successful trainers in the sport have all been cited for medical or drug violations.
Pletcher has racked up nine drug-related violations throughout his career. On one occasion, regulators found he broke rules regarding Lasix – known as the “water drug” – which makes a horse urinate and potentially run faster. New regulations have banned the drug – though state commissions can apply for three-year exemptions – while the effect on horse safety is studied, according to HISA.
Pletcher was suspended for 10 days last month, after a delayed drug test showed that his horse, Forte, had elevated levels of a common pain-reliever and anti-inflammatory drug during a race he won in New York back in September.
Irad Ortiz Jr. rides Forte to victory during the Breeders' Cup Juvenile race at Keenelend Race Course, on Nov. 4, 2022, in Lexington, Kentucky. - Jeff Roberson/AP/FILE
“Forte came into our care on March 25, 2022, and he has never been prescribed or administered meloxicam,” Pletcher, who did not respond to CNN’s multiple requests for comment, told Bloodhorse.com. “We did an internal investigation and could not find an employee who had used the drug.”
Records show Pletcher plans to appeal the ruling.
Baffert, too, was suspended after his horse, Medina Spirit – who placed first in a 2021 race at Churchill Downs – tested positive for an anti-inflammatory. The suspension was one of about two dozen drug-related violations during Baffert’s career; the vast majority included anti-inflammatories like betamethasone and phenylbutazone.
One of the three highest earning trainers, Steve Asmussen, has been cited for violations of medication rules about 40 times, in many instances finding elevated levels of anti-inflammatories or thyroid medication, according to records from the Association of Racing Commissioners International, an umbrella organization of horse racing regulators. Research has shown thyroid medication in horses can cause cardiac arrythmias and new regulations ban its use in thoroughbreds, including on race day.
Clark Brewster, an attorney for both Baffert and Asmussen, said the tally of violations from ARCI data paints an unfair picture of his clients because many of those citations involved therapeutic medications that only slightly exceeded allowable limits in the rules, which he said have repeatedly shifted. “These guys are painstakingly trying to get it right.”
Motion, the veteran Maryland trainer, himself has been cited at least twice in his career for medication violations, once after one of his horses tested positive for methocarbamol – a muscle relaxer that is permissible to treat horses, but not allowed on race day.
“It was a very difficult time for me. And I fought it. And I almost regret fighting it now,” said Motion, adding that he felt his team “handled the medication the proper way.”
He said the new rules around when horses need to withdraw from such medication ahead of race day could have prevented this type of incident.
Trainer Steve Asmussen before the 149th running of the Kentucky Oaks on May 5, 2023, at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. - Jeff Moreland/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images/FILE
Some therapeutic drugs, including anti-inflammatories, are a big concern for the industry on race day. Before each race, horses are examined by veterinarians to determine their fitness and identify potential ailments. But medication in the horse’s system, like anti-inflammatories, can mask some of those preexisting injuries.
“The extent [of the preexisting injury] can change dramatically and it can go from something minor to something that is potentially serious, if not life threatening” when a horse bursts onto the track from the starting stall, said Dr. Mary Scollay, chief of science at the Horseracing Integrity and Welfare Unit which oversees the new medication control regulations under HISA.
New HISA regulations, implemented last month, include strict rules about withdrawal times and allowable medication levels on race day.
“We want to make sure that there is no lingering effects from that medication that could mask a potential injury that would put that horse at risk to the horse, the rider, the others that are in that race,” said Dr. Will Farmer, equine medical director at Churchill Downs Incorporated. “That’s why we have very strict regulation around use of therapeutics in regards to a race specifically.”
For decades, a patchwork of local and state rules governed the racetracks in the United States, and trainers found in violation of the rules meant to keep their horses safe have been met with minimal repercussions.
Pletcher – whose horses have earned more than $460 million in almost 25,000 races – paid $5,000 in fines for drug-related citations over the course of his 27-year career. Baffert and Asmussen were each fined over $30,000 during their decades-long careers, according to records from the racing commissioners association. Those fines are offset by more than $340 million and $410 million in earnings, respectively, according to Equibase.
What’s more, suspensions only banned trainers from certain tracks, allowing them to continue racing – and pocketing earnings – in other states.
Since the 2022 New York race where Pletcher’s horse Forte had a post-race positive drug test, the horse won four more competitions for Pletcher, earning his handlers more than $2 million.
Forte is set to race this weekend and is one of the favorites to win the Belmont Stakes.
Baffert, too, was able to continue racing after he was hit with the suspension following Medina Spirit’s positive drug test. During that time, Baffert entered hundreds of races on other tracks, competing for purses totaling nearly $125 million, according to Equibase data. In 2022 alone, Baffert’s horses brought in nearly $10 million in prize money.
A general view at the start during the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. - Jamie Rhodes/USA Today Sports/Reuters/FILE
The biggest change in the governance of American horse racing was tucked into a 2020 federal spending bill. That proviso ultimately created the national Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, or HISA – a move that, after three previous legislative attempts, found support from federal lawmakers after a particularly deadly season at a California racetrack.
During the 2018-2019 season, a staggering 56 horses died at one of the most glamorous racetracks in the country, Santa Anita Park, once home to the famous 1940s thoroughbred Seabiscuit.
The California Horse Racing Board could not determine a common denominator for the fatalities but found that the vast majority of horses that died had preexisting injuries. And, while no illegal substances or procedures were found, many of the horses were on anti-inflammatories and various other medications.
“Horse racing must develop a culture of safety first,” the California board wrote in its investigative report. “A small number of participants refusing to change will harm the entire industry.”
Initially a local scandal, the deaths in Santa Anita Park would have national implications. The fatalities led not only to a complete overhaul of racing practices in Santa Anita – improved track maintenance, restrictions on the use of medications, and softer whips on race day – but also to new national rules under the new regulator, HISA.
As a private entity under the supervision of the Federal Trade Commission, HISA creates uniform regulations and penalties to govern racetracks throughout the country. The latest set of rules, implemented last month, include anti-doping and medication control programs. They also state that any suspension for a rule violation will carry across all tracks under HISA’s jurisdiction.
HISA CEO Lisa Lazarus said the goal is to ensure that “there is a level playing field, that the horses are treated properly, that there is built-in safety and integrity” in the sport.
But some pockets of the industry aren’t welcoming the changes – most notably the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, which has questioned the constitutionality of HISA and filed suits arguing regulatory overreach.
In an annual NHBPA conference held in March, trainers spoke out against HISA citing an increased administrative burden and added costs of higher fees and required veterinary checks.
“The whole thing is a façade. It’s been all smoke and mirrors,” said Bret Calhoun, a horse trainer and member of the Louisiana HBPA board, according to the Thoroughbred Daily News. “They sold this thing as the safety of the horse. It’s absolutely not about safety of horse. It’s a few people, with self-interest and they have their own personal agenda.”
There are several lawsuits challenging HISA’s legitimacy and authority in the sport, some backed by the NHBPA, making their way through courts across the country. But while legal battles are fought in the courts, horses keep dying on the tracks.
Last week, a horse death at Belmont Park meant that there have been fatalities around all three racetracks in the Triple Crown this season.
“There is risk in any sport. We cannot eliminate risk. We can continue to diminish risk as best we can. We are never going to eliminate a horse getting injured,” said Motion, adding “the most important thing is the welfare of the horse. It’s not winning at all costs. It’s winning with a healthy animal.”
To identify racehorses who died while being trained by the industry’s highest-earning trainers, CNN combined a list of dead horses compiled by activist Patrick Battuello with data from the horse racing website Equibase.
Since 2014, Battuello has collected state horse racing commission reports on horse deaths through public records requests and published a list of racehorses who died each year on his website. Most of the horse deaths Battuello has identified are based on state records, although a handful are based on news reports or verbal confirmation he received from racetrack officials.
CNN matched Battuello’s list of deceased horses with data downloaded from Equibase that listed each horse’s trainer as of its most recent race. For the top three trainers with the highest earnings, Pletcher, Asmussen and Baffert, CNN reviewed the original documents Battuello collected from the commissions, which he provided to reporters.
Because the Equibase data on trainers is based on each horse’s most recent race, some horses may have moved to other trainers before they died. In a handful of cases, when state death records listed a different trainer for a horse than Equibase does, CNN used the trainer listed in the records.
CNN’s review only included horse deaths that were required to be reported to state commissions, so it undercounts the total deaths associated with individual trainers. In addition, not all of the dead horses Battuello has documented were able to be reliably matched with Equibase’s data, so additional deaths may also be missing from the review.
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