The Kentucky Derby is a timeless event that’s lasted since 1875. It’s been around since before the rise of baseball in America and before American football was even a sport, and it came to the forefront of American pastimes decades before hockey, basketball, and most other sports arrived on the scene.
And while seemingly scandal-ridden, the Run for the Roses has overcome herculean challenges the last few years. While controversy is nothing new in sports, and games like baseball have overcome the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal with Shoeless Joe Jackson, doping scandals including top players like Barry Bonds in the early 2000s, and various football scandals as well, American horse racing can’t seem to shake the controversy. And perhaps that’s because there’s a horse at the center of the enterprise instead of a human.
In May 2019, The Kentucky Derby saw the disqualification of the first horse to cross the finish line in the race, Maximum Security, due to an infraction – something that hadn’t occurred in 51 years since Dancer’s Image was disqualified for a drug infraction in 1968.
Up next was the death of Mongolian Groom at The Breeders’ Cup in Del Mar in 2021, a terrible and gruesome death that came in the wake of dozens of horses breaking down on the track as the body count continued to climb at Santa Anita, just north of Los Angeles.
In March 2020, just days before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, horse racing was plagued by the arrest and indictment of 27 trainers, veterinarians, and others involved in the largest illegal doping cartel any sport has ever seen in the U.S. The indictments were followed by a Washington Post editorial entitled “Horse Racing Has Outlived It’s Time.” Most of those indicted went to prison, but some sang like canaries to the Dept. of Justice and sent ripples through the so-called Sport of Kings.
It wasn’t long after the Post’s editorial that U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell saw the writing on the wall and stepped in to help us advance the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) that myself, The Jockey Club, The Breeders’ Cup, NYRA, and others had been working to enact since 2015.
But more controversy arose in May of that year when Medina Spirit, the first horse to cross the finish line in the 2020 Derby, was disqualified for testing positive for an illegal level of a steroid known as betamethasone. The horses’ trainer, the infamous Bob Baffert, a man who has pushed the envelope in the sport for decades with his questionable tactics and methods – cried foul, and said the horse had not been administered the drug. He later walked his comments back after a secondary test from the split sample proved otherwise, yet he continues to try and beat the system. Tragically, Medina Spirit dropped dead of a cardiac event later that year at Santa Anita, amidst a legal battle that saw Baffert disqualified from the 2022 and 2023 Derby events due to the Medina Spirit debacle.
There was, however, cause for hope, as Sen. McConnell’s insertion into the Congressional debate on HISA brought tremendous support with Churchill Downs, the Derby’s publicly traded parent company backing a new version of the measure. HISA was signed into law in December of 2020 by President Donald J. Trump, making it the first federal horse protection law enacted in half a century. The new law banned race-day doping, provided for the promulgation of new anti-doping and track safety rules, and uniform drug testing overseen by the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (Authority), which the law created.
But unfortunately, as the running of the 148th Derby approaches, the new anti-doping rules have yet to be implemented or enforced. They first met challenges in the court when rogue trainers from the Horsemen’s’ Benevolent Protection Association (HBPA) filed suit to nullify the law alongside the Attorneys General from West Virginia, and Louisiana, two of the worst states in the nation when it comes to equine welfare. More challenges came when the new Authority parted ways with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), the gold standard of drug testing in sports.
The courts deemed the new law “unconstitutional” over a technicality, but we went back to work lobbying and fixed it with a change to the language in the year-end federal spending bill signed into law in December 2022. So once again, the rogue trainers at the HBPA and their allies who want to keep doping alive and rampant filed suit. And one more time, the effort to stamp out doping in American horse racing and at the 2023 Kentucky Derby was thwarted due to the Federal Trade Commission’s decision to punt the implementation of the rules until May 22, 2023, more than two weeks after the running of the iconic race.
And now four horse deaths have just occurred at Churchill Downs within a six day period just days before the Derby runs on Saturday. Another black mark on the record that may have been prevented if the new anti-doping rules were actually in place.
It’s been a long and disheartening road, wondering constantly, “Are we there yet?” But advocates in equine welfare are committed to seeing the end of the drugs that ultimately lead to countless horse deaths and injuries around the country, and we’re not giving up.
Today, horse racing stands a better chance at surviving into the 22nd century than it did five years ago, and that’s perhaps because of the scandals that led to the enactment of the new law and The Jockey Club’s commitment to the welfare of the horse. But the implementation of the new anti-doping rules must come quickly, continuing to punt the regulations to buy more time for the status quo won’t cut it anymore and time is running out. If the new law isn’t implemented soon, American horse racing could be entering its final stretch. Only time will tell.
Marty Irby is an eight-time world champion equestrian and senior adviser at the Animal Wellness Foundation. He was honored by the late Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 2020 for his work to protect horses. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook @MartyIrby