LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Following the tragic deaths of the 12 horses this meet at Churchill Downs, what’s actually behind those deaths continues to elude investigators.
The goal is to find out the causes because it’s generally agreed that the problem is multi-factorial and isn’t likely to be just one cause.
Once it’s all figured out, horse racing wants to learn from the tragedies at the track to make changes and to build on safety.
However, Churchill Downs has already invested upwards of a million dollars in new technology which should enhance safety.
It’s a scanning system called a P.E.T. machine; it stands for Positron Emission Tomography.
Unlike horse X-rays and other diagnostic equipment, P.E.T. scans go beyond the bone structure to the cellular level to find potential problems.
“It allows us to see how the body’s responding, the cells are responding to the stresses of, in our case, race training,” Dr. William Farmer, the equine medical director at Churchill Downs, said.
Farmer said when something’s wrong, bone cells become very active and highly reproductive.
Images are produced due to an isotope being injected into the horse.
The cells pick up the isotope and then emit a signal.
The isotope is radioactive, similar to one used in human cancer screening, and is delivered by car from Cincinnati.
It has to arrive at the right time because if it sits too long, it becomes too late for the right dose.
“For the first time we’re actually able to get ahead of that fracture,” Farmer said. “For the first time ever, we’re able to identify that lesion before it becomes a fracture line.”
From there, trainers can allow the horse to rest while veterinarians can develop the appropriate treatment plan.
Farmer said studies have shown approximately 85% to 90% of horse fatalities are due to some kind of pre-existing injury, which most of the time are too subtle to find.
Of the 12 recent horse deaths at Churchill Downs, nine of the cases involved broken bones and catastrophic leg injuries.
“This (the P.E.T. machine) is I think a really big game changer to help with that puzzle,” Farmer pointed out.
The P.E.T. machine was installed the week ahead of Churchill Downs opening March 28, and it’s only the second one dedicated to a track in the country.
The other one is at Santa Anita Park in California.
After 42 horses died there in 2019, the track brought in this specialized scanner to complement other changes to improve safety.
As of 2022, horse fatalities in races there plummeted as much as 80%.
As far as affordability goes, Farmer said veterinarians set the price and he’s told that the P.E.T. scans are not more expensive than other equine diagnostic imaging.
“It was designed with the intention to be affordable and available to every horse, regardless of what kind of class or race they’re running in," Farmer added.
This and the anti-doping program aim to ensure the safety of racing horses going forward.