The Current·Q&A

American horseracing not 'designed with the horse in mind,' trainer says in light of Kentucky Derby deaths

Hundreds of thoroughbreds die at race tracks every year. Trainer Gina Rarick says she is troubled by the way horseracing is conducted in the United States.

12 horses at Churchill Downs, home of the race, were euthanized due to injuries suffered on track

Two jockeys race in their horses as a stand filled with people is seen in the background.
Filly Kimberley Dream was euthanized after sustaining a distal sesamodean ligament rupture to her front leg during the first race of the Kentucky Derby in May 2023. Lost in Limbo was euthanized following a similar injury just before the finish line in Friday's seventh race. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Read transcribed audio

The spotlight should have been on Mage for winning the 149th Kentucky Derby on May 6. But the deaths of several other horses have overshadowed the event itself, and raised concerns about horses' safety and welfare in the sport.

Twelve horses at Churchill Downs, the home of the world-famous horse race, were euthanized in the weeks leading up to and following the derby, due to injuries suffered either in races or training sessions.

The deaths include horses Chloe's Dream and Freezing Point, who suffered injuries in undercard races.

The deaths have prompted the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority to announce additional safety and health measures, such as additional post-entry screenings of horses to identify those with increased risk for injury. It will also direct its Integrity and Welfare Unit to collect blood and hair samples for all fatalities for use in investigations.

Churchill Downs also announced it will immediately limit horses to four starts during a rolling eight-week period, and impose ineligibility standards for poor performers.

But these deaths aren't a rare occurrence; hundreds of thoroughbreds die worldwide at race tracks every year, according to The Jockey Club's Equine Injury Database.

American Gina Rarick has been a thoroughbred racehorse trainer for 15 years, but she's currently working in France. She said she is troubled by the way horseracing is conducted in the United States.

"If racing were the way racing is in Europe [or] everywhere in the world, it would be fantastic," she told The Current's Matt Galloway. 

"I don't think the American system is designed with the horse in mind. Huge changes need to be made, but I don't know that the industry will wake up and make them soon enough."

Here's part of their conversation.

A horse is shown in shadow as the sun rises in a darkened sky in the background.
A horse heads to the track for a workout at Churchill Downs. 12 horses have died or been euthanized in the days before and after the 149th Kentucky Derby. (Charlie Riedel/The Associated Press)

In 2019, you wrote a piece about a crisis that you said was shaking horseracing. Twenty-two horses in that year were killed on a single track. What is the crisis that is shaking this sport and this industry?

The crisis that's shaking the industry in America and a bit in Canada … is that the system in North America is not particularly friendly to the horse. 

It started, obviously, in Europe, but it's gone way, way, way away from its European roots, and racing in North America is really a different sport than racing in the rest of the world and especially racing in Europe.

In the rest of the world and in Europe, while there are fatalities — we can't say there are not — the rate of fatal accidents for horses is far below that seen in North America.

Working the horses in the same way every day is just a recipe for pounding the joints and the sort of breakdown rate that you're seeing here.-Gina Rarick, racehorse trainer

So tell me about the differences. You're working in Europe. How is a thoroughbred horse trained in Europe compared to in the United States — or to your point, here in Canada?

In America and Canada, horses are trained, by and large, on the racecourse where they run. 

So they train and they race over the same surface. They train on a uniformly flat, short dirt track, and they run in the same direction every day. And most of the racing programs in North America and Canada centre around very short races: sprint races that are 1,000 to 1,400 metres long.

We have racecourses all over Europe that run primarily on turf. We have no dirt racing. We do have a handful of synthetic tracks, but most of our racing is run on turf. 

It's run on varied surfaces. Our racecourses go right hand, left hand, straight line, up hills, down hills. It's a much more varied and natural surface to race on. 

Jockeys race each other on horses at the Kentucky Derby.
Mage, ridden by jockey Javier Castellano, crosses the finish line to win the 149th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on May 6, 2023. (Sam Mallon/Getty Images)

And most of our horses are not trained at the racecourse…. Generally, [they] are trained in private training centres or state-sanctioned training centres around the country.

So the horses are actually shipped in to the race course on race day, which means they're trained on racing surfaces where there are more trees; they see grass. It's a whole different environment for the horse than it is in North America.

What difference does that make for the horse? 

If the horse is running the same direction, same kind of track, day in and day out, all of the muscles and bones are stressed in the same way every day. There's no variation to it. 

If you're a human being, imagine that you do weightlifting, but only with your right arm and only on the same machine every day, and you never vary training. Well, what's going to happen is the rest of your body is not going to keep up. 

Working the horses in the same way every day is just a recipe for pounding the joints and the sort of breakdown rate that you're seeing here.

A group of jockeys race horses on a track with a sign that says churchill downs.
The field of horses round the final turn during the 149th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on May 6. (Grace Hollars-USA TODAY Sports via Reuters)

You wrote in 2019 that every time something like this happens … the calls for banning racing get louder. Animals are dying in this sport. Why are those calls wrong? 

Well, because people who want racing to stop and people who want any kind of sport involving animals to stop need to understand … a horse is a working animal.

It's not a dog or a cat or house pet that you're going to bring in your living room. A horse was born and bred and gone through centuries to develop, to work with humans. 

They don't have to pull tractors, they don't have to pull the plow anymore, and so they've evolved to sport horses. 

If we stop working with horses, horses don't need to be around anymore. You can't just let them all go frolic in a field somewhere. Nature is not kind that way. These horses are extremely well taken care of and are used to being extremely well taken care of. 

It's a fantastic animal. It's a fantastic sport.… If we could make some changes, we can bring down that fatality rate and allow the sport to continue because it is an amazing, beautiful sport.

Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. With files from the Associated Press. Produced by Ines Colabrese.


Mouhamad Rachini is a Canadian-Lebanese writer and producer for CBC Radio's digital team. He's worked for several CBC Radio shows including The Current, Day 6 and Cross Country Checkup. He's particularly passionate about stories from Muslim and Middle Eastern communities. He also writes about soccer on his website Between the Sticks. You can reach him at

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