The appalling spate of horse deaths at Churchill Downs in the days leading up to the Kentucky Derby, the greatest spectacle in American horse racing, presents a sobering reality check.

In this day and age, it is clear that the sympathy of the public does not lie with the colossal investments made in racehorses or financial bets placed on this and other racing events. Finally, the focus is on the welfare, safety and lives of the animals and the jockeys who ride them.

This year’s tragedies are the latest in a string. We remember the heartbreaking death of Eight Belles following the 2008 Derby and the injury of Barbaro during the 2006 Preakness and his eventual euthanasia. We recall the scandal around Medina Spirit’s 2021 Derby disqualification and the punishment of trainer Bob Baffert. In 2019, there was the Derby disqualification of Maximum Security and the 2022 guilty plea of trainer Jason Servis for doping-related offenses. This year also saw the drug-related suspension of Derby-favorite Forte’s trainer, Todd Pletcher.

The pageantry and thrill of the upcoming Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore may distract momentarily, but the cries for reform in the racing industry persist, and they will only grow over time. Horse racing is not “Survivor,” and its leaders cannot afford to carry on with business as usual. It’s time for a hard look in the mirror.

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Change in the sport means prioritizing horse and jockey safety and welfare above all else. It means no leniency regarding practices and conditions that produce catastrophic injuries to racehorses.

In addition to its having one of the highest racehorse injury rates in the world, the U.S. horse racing industry grapples with lax doping and medication enforcement. The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, established by the federal Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, which Congress passed in 2020, is ideally situated to address these concerns.

The use of pain-masking and performance-enhancing drugs directly contributes to catastrophic breakdowns. So, it is imperative for all stakeholders, including the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, to support and expedite the implementation of the authority’s anti-doping and medication control program to reduce future tragedies and create a safer environment for racehorses.

In recent years, animal advocates have collaborated with forward-thinking industry leaders such as The Jockey Club to secure the critical 2020 federal legislation and to press for its enforcement. But a few outlier groups in the industry have sought to stymie progress, seeking to block implementation of the law through litigation.

The Federal Trade Commission, which oversees the authority, has called for the drug program’s implementation on May 22, just before the Belmont Stakes, the Triple Crown’s final leg. Sadly, this is too late for the Preakness.

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It remains to be seen whether opponents will allow these new rules to take effect and if their implementation, combined with existing track safety regulations, saves racehorse lives. The stakes are high. The industry is gambling not only with racehorse lives, but with its very own survival. If reform does not come and horse racing does not change, it could be galloping toward its last lap.

Keith Dane is the senior director of equine protection at the Humane Society of the United States.

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