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4 horses die at Churchill Downs ahead of the Kentucky Derby

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Horse racing's Triple Crown kicks off tomorrow with the Kentucky Derby. But its big story so far is not about the competition. This week four horses died in a five-day span at the Churchill Downs racetrack, where the derby is held. Two were euthanized after suffering injuries. The cause of the other two deaths is still unclear, but the trainer of those horses has been suspended from the Kentucky Derby, and another of his horses has been scratched from the race. Joe Drape covers horse racing for The New York Times, and he's with us now. Hi, Joe.

JOE DRAPE: Hi, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: Joe, these horse deaths have been a big problem for this industry for a very long time. But in terms of these most recent four deaths, is there anything else you've learned through your reporting about what happened, what caused them?

DRAPE: Well, it's being taken very serious. And the first two were deaths on the racetrack. Something happened. It was skeletomuscular. They could not recover from it, so they were euthanized. The two sudden deaths is what puzzles everybody. You know, there's a new mechanism in place right now called the Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Authority. And so they've amped it up. They've taken blood and hair samples. They've investigated. But they're puzzled, basically. You know, and my reporting over the years on this has shown that 56% of the time when they do a necropsy, when they examine a horse that had died, they cannot come with a definitive diagnosis or prognosis what happened to the horse.

PFEIFFER: Churchill Downs put out a statement about these horse deaths, and it called them completely unacceptable, but it also said highly unusual. Are they really highly unusual?

DRAPE: They are highly unusual. You know, what has happened - they've actually done a pretty good job. We did a series with the Times in the early aughts, and at that point, two horses died per thousand starts. It set off a reform movement. They have an equine injury database. They made some changes in rules and regulations both on the medications and how they're treated and how the racetracks are configured. And it's almost gone in half to that point. This past year, it was 1.25 per thousand races. And, you know, the fact of the matter is there's never going to be zero fatalities in horse racing, and that's what society is eventually going to have to grapple with.

PFEIFFER: Joe, you've reported that the fatality rate in the U.S. is 2 1/2 to five times greater than in the rest of the racing world. What are we doing in the United States that's causing that?

DRAPE: Too many medication and drugs. They pretty much run what we call Hay, Oats and Water in the rest of the world. You know, if your horse is sore, you're not going to give him a corticosteroid to get him to the track to race. They're more vigilant with their veterinarian inspections. They're more vigilant with their testing. You know, they just have a different worldview that has worked for them. And not only are we 2 1/2 to five more than them. Horse racing is far more popular in the rest of the world than it is in America.

PFEIFFER: Dying here, it seems like. It seems like there's declining interest.

DRAPE: Total declining interest. You know, you could argue it's on life support, and it's going to be sort of a hard sunset for that. Horses mean so much to the country. They helped us settle this place. They're such a part of our sports history. You know, it's on life support. They're trying to get it under control. Ultimately, we, me, you, who's watching Saturday or who's not watching Saturday will decide how long they will tolerate the sport.

PFEIFFER: Joe Drape of The New York Times. Thank you very much.

DRAPE: Thanks for having me, Sacha.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACK WILKINS' "RED CLAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.