LOUISVILLE, Ky. — At the Kentucky Derby, for nearly 20 years now, as I make my rounds at Churchill Downs, I hear two phrases dozens of times.
One is a question: “Who do you like?”
The other is a prayer: “Let’s just get ’em all around there safely.”
In my early days, I was far more eager to answer the question than reflect on the prayer. For the 150,000-plus fans expected here and the millions more watching on television, picking a winner, enjoying the hats, absorbing a truly American spectacle and a bourbon or two have become part of the fabric of the event.
The horse, after all, was our partner in settling this country. This is the 145th running of America’s most famous thoroughbred race. Racing horses predates baseball.
[Read our expert picks for the Kentucky Derby]
The prayers, however, are what captivate me now. The people who murmur them do so daily at racetracks across the country. There are plenty of them: grooms and owners, veterinarians and breeders, horse lovers of all stripes.
They will offer them up Saturday before every race, but perhaps with extra passion before the 12th race, the one that turns casual sports fans into horse enthusiasts on the first Saturday of May.
Nineteen thoroughbreds, each going up to 35 miles an hour with a jockey aboard, striding out for a mile and a quarter. Add a roaring crowd, possible rain and sloppy footing. We are talking Formula One engines going bumper-to-bumper on ankles the size of Coke bottles.
It is thrilling and dangerous and beautiful all at once.
The stakes on Saturday are high for a declining sport that is now an endangered one. Twenty-three horse deaths over a three-month span at Santa Anita Park in Southern California shut down racing there and produced calls to ban the sport. In California, 600,000 signatures on a petition could prompt a ballot initiative on whether horse racing should continue to exist.
A horse at a morning workout in preparation for the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday.CreditMichael Reaves/Getty Images
“I do believe that we all have to be conscious of the fact that it’s a new world,” said Craig Fravel, the president and chief executive of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships. “We have to face up very clearly to that changed environment and minimize the perception that horses are being used beyond their capacity.”
It is a tall order when nearly 10 horses a week, on average, died at American racetracks in 2018, according to the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database. That’s a fatality rate that is anywhere from two and a half to five times greater than in the rest of the racing world. A repeat of 2008, when the filly Eight Belles suffered a compound fracture in front of millions of fans after finishing second in the Derby and was euthanized, could be catastrophic for the sport.
Fravel knows that better than most. Each year, his organization hosts the best horses in the world, employs an equine medical staff and adopts surveillance and medication rules on par with Europe, and still it has suffered a handful of fatalities.
“They get hurt, and because of the nature of the animal, you can’t put them back together like you do in human medicine,” he said. “There’s no way to spin that — our job is to give maximum effort to minimize that. You have to get up in the morning and look at the mirror and ask yourself, ‘Are you doing everything you can to keep that from happening?’”
Not enough racetrack owners, trainers and veterinarians are looking in the mirror and answering honestly in the affirmative. A vital move, experts and animal-rights activist say, is to dial back significantly on the use of performance-enhancing drugs and painkillers, which allow horses to perform better than they naturally would, increasing the danger of catastrophic breakdowns.
The Stronach Group, the owner of Santa Anita Park, is in the process of adopting international standards that are expected to transform the racetrack into one of the safest and most progressive ones in the country. It also backs a federal bill introduced in March with bipartisan support to create a uniform national standard for drug testing and medication rules in racehorses that would be overseen by the United States Anti-Doping Agency.
Notably, Churchill Downs Inc. and Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, who counts the company among his top patrons, do not support the bill.
It is a bold choice for a racetrack that has lost 43 thoroughbreds to racing injuries since 2016, an average of 2.42 per 1,000 starts, which was 50 percent higher than the national average during the same time. It is a deflating one for members of the Breeders’ Cup, the New York Racing Association and the breeders and owners’ organizations that support the bill.
So around 6:50 p.m. Saturday, shortly after the crowd joins in on a teary rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home,” a battered old sport and those who love it will forget their troubles for two minutes.
Who do I like?
All of them. Let’s just get ’em all around there safely.