By Caitlin McGlade
It was Kinley Karole’s first race, ever.
On a Thursday nearly two weeks after the Kentucky Derby, the crowd at Churchill Downs was sparse. The 3-year-old filly came out of the gate slow. For the first minute, she trailed far behind the pack.
When she started to catch up, her back leg snapped.
Dennis Trusty, a regular bettor at Churchill Downs, lurched away from his spot close to the rail, punched a wall and stormed down to the paddock. Too painful to watch.
He was certain the filly would be euthanized from the way her leg bent backwards.
“I knew what happened; it’s just I wanted to be sure what happened,” he said.
He scanned social media, checked industry blogs. Nothing.
If Kinley Karole had died in other states with major races, her death would become public record. Officials from California, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland and New York share which horses die, where and when. The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission largely keeps that secret, saying state law protects the business interests of their trainers and owners.
The Courier-Journal in March reported that 43 thoroughbreds had died at Churchill Downs since 2016. Last month, The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting requested records that would further detail the circumstances of those deaths: race horse necropsies filed by veterinarians, and data the state submits to an industry database that tracks race horse death and injuries.
The commission refused to release the data, calling the submissions “drafts,” which would exempt them from disclosure under Kentucky’s Open Records Act. The commission also said state law makes veterinarians’ relationships with clients confidential.
Officials did agree to release the death reports, which include medical descriptions of the horses’ problems and the track conditions. But the commission redacted other key information: name, age, sex, time and date of death, race number, the track name and the owner’s name.
Shawn Chapman, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission’s deputy general counsel, cited a Kentucky state law that protects competitive information from disclosure in refusing to turn over details from the necropsies.
He said releasing that information could put trainers and owners at a competitive disadvantage. He declined to answer additional questions.
Susan West, a spokesperson for the Public Protection Cabinet, which oversees the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, said in an emailed statement that other states keep the names of injured and dead horses confidential too. She did not specify which states.
West also noted that the agency will confirm the deaths of specific horses when asked; she confirmed that Kinley Karole died after that race at Churchill Downs last month.
But the horse racing commission’s position on open records makes it harder for the public to hold accountable some of the racing industry’s biggest players, said Amye Bensenhaver, with the Kentucky Open Government Coalition.
“In establishing these impediments to access, they are tipping the balance in favor of the industry rather than the public’s right to know,” Bensenhaver said.
New York, home of the Belmont Stakes, takes the opposite approach.
When New York-based trainer Robert Barbara’s horse, Tommy T, died at the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, the details were entered into a publicly available database maintained by the New York State Gaming Commission.
The database says Tommy T broke a leg bone on January 27 and was euthanized on the track.
Barbara told KyCIR that he doesn’t feel at a disadvantage simply because anyone can go online and see how many of his horses died or got injured in New York.
Besides Tommy T, Barbara has lost two other horses since 2016 and had a few others that incurred injuries.
“If it’s out there, it’s out there,” Barbara said. “If people go to the internet and see this stuff, and see that I’ve had five horses break down in two years or whatever, and another guy that has the same record as me never had a horse break down, will it mean something to somebody? I guess. Does it bother me? No, it doesn’t. It is what it is.”
In Other States, Horse Fatality Details Freely Shared
A spate of deaths at Santa Anita Park in California recently sparked widespread scrutiny on fatalities and health impacts of various drugs administered to race horses.
Track fatalities in Kentucky are on the rise: they nearly doubled from 23 in 2017 to 38 in 2018, according to statistics in veterinary reports obtained through a public records request.
Mary Scollay, the racing commission’s equine medical director, declined an interview with KyCIR. She instead asked for emailed questions but did not respond.
In February, Scollay told the Paullick Report, a race industry trade publication, that she couldn’t find much that stuck out about the horses that died.
She noted the only commonality among the dead was their age: the horses dying are younger than usual.
The age group most at risk for fatal injuries is shifting to 2 and 3-year-olds rather than 3 and 4-year-olds, according to the Paullick Report story. The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission blacked out the ages of the horses that died in the records provided to KyCIR.
The public should be able to independently look for trends, Bensenhaver said.
“We have to have access to these records to enable us to assess at every level how these responsibilities are being discharged; how seriously [state officials] are undertaking this effort to expose what the problem is.”
Officials from other major racing states interviewed by KyCIR all said basic details and the identities of horses that die are not confidential.
A spokesman for Maryland’s racing commission handed over a list of all horse racing deaths in 2018, with dates, locations, injury types and horse names, after a phone call. An official from California, too, quickly turned over names of the dead from Santa Anita Park.
The spokesman said names and dates of death at other tracks, as long as the deaths were not under investigation, would be available after submitting a public records request.
In Arkansas, a state official with the Arkansas Racing Commission said the agency would share the details, although they didn’t respond to a public records request prior to publication.
Several state officials remarked that they release details because they value transparency.
“Absolutely. we’re 100 percent transparent when it comes to the information … Horse name, trainer, the track, what kind of race …. It should be made public,” said Mickey Ezzo, projects manager for the Illinois Racing Commission.
A spokesman from New York’s gaming commission, which launched its injury and death database in 2009, wrote in an email that the racing community widely accepts the transparency.
Officials from other states said they seldom hear complaints for sharing.
“Not one,” said Ezzo, from the Illinois Racing Commission. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years and never gotten any complaints from horsemen when that information was released to the public.”
The Jockey Club, which is the thoroughbred breed registry for thoroughbreds in North America, encourages race tracks to post their death and injury statistics. Only Keeneland and Turfway Park in Kentucky share their statistics; Churchill Downs does not. A Churchill Downs spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.
Jockey Club President James Gagliano said his website does not publish information on individual cases but he couldn’t understand how Kentucky could argue that identifying horses that die and where they died would create competitive disadvantages.
“I really question the wisdom of a statement like that,” Gagliano said. “These are facts and there is nothing wrong with reporting the facts.”
Even in the midst of the nationwide controversy over horse deaths, Kinley Karole’s death two weeks after the Derby didn’t make the news.
The only place it was reported was on Patrick Battuello’s anti-horse racing website, HorseRacingWrongs.com. Battuello scours the internet for information. Churchill Downs’ daily racing chart, posted to a major bettor website, said the filly “went wrong entering the lane, was pulled up and vanned off.”
Some states’ racing charts just say horses were euthanized. But not Kentucky’s, according to Battuello’s research. “Went wrong,” he says, is code for euthanized.
Larry Demeritte, who trained the three-year-old filly who recently died at Churchill Downs, didn’t have any problem putting it plainly: Her leg “snapped off,” he said.
“It was ugly. I couldn’t even go look at her. It was just too painful to see.”
Demeritte trains 10 horses at his stables at the Thoroughbred Center in Lexington, surrounded by rolling green hills and white fences. He said he bonds with each of his horses; that they all have their own quirks, their own way of expressing themselves to him.
He patted his chest as he searched for the words.
“That’s like one of your kids you just lost … People don’t know,” he said. “These animals we spend more time around them than we do ourselves, our families.”
It hurt, but Demeritte doesn’t think it should be a secret.
If Kentucky shared horse death data like other states do, Demeritte said, he wouldn’t see it as a competitive disadvantage. In fact, he thinks encouraging more transparency could help.
“I would like to see that people trust us more in the game,” he said. “The more secretive you are, people always say, there’s something shady about it.”