Editor’s note: On May 19, First Mission was scratched from the Preakness field the day before the race, dropping the field to seven horses.

At about 7:01 p.m. Saturday, eight of the most scrutinized horses in thoroughbred racing will take their posts inside Pimlico Race Course, bolt from the starting gate and cover 1 3/16 miles on a dirt track before a massive crowd and national TV audience. The hope around the sport is that Preakness will be run without incident, that the second leg of the Triple Crown will be all anyone wants to talk about this weekend.

After a grim lead-up to the Kentucky Derby this month, when at least seven horses died at Churchill Downs, an abundance of caution has prevailed in Baltimore. The path to a spot in the race might in some ways be as demanding as the 150-year-old competition itself. Renewed questions about the safety and welfare of racehorses have left little room for error.

“Horse racing’s on eggshells,” NBC analyst Randy Moss said in an interview. “They publicly made a point of letting people know that everything’s being done to try to ensure the safety of the horses before the Preakness, probably even more so than they ordinarily would, just because of what happened at Churchill Downs and because of the understandable public outcry about it.”

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Dionne Benson, the chief veterinary officer for the Stronach Group, which owns and operates Pimlico and Laurel Park, said in a conference call that race officials are “always reviewing our safety protocols.” This year, their efforts began even before the string of deaths in Louisville, Kentucky, raised concerns about the industry’s reform efforts.

Two to three weeks ago, officials started collecting out-of-competition samples from likely contenders in Preakness and Black-Eyed Susan Stakes. Horses in the weekend’s two most high-profile races, who must arrive at Pimlico at least 72 hours before their race time, are also subject to at least three examinations from officials before racing, Benson said.

Under new protocols, every horse that runs this weekend will require clearance not only from its attending veterinarian but also an independent regulatory veterinarian. According to Benson, regulatory veterinarians can sign off on a horse after observing it at Pimlico or examining it before it ships to the track.

“Basically anywhere that any of these horses come from, we’ve had someone go out and examine them and jog them and ensure that they feel that they are racing sound before they even make it to Maryland,” Benson said.

While the sport’s nascent, federally mandated self-regulatory agency, the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, will implement its antidoping program after Preakness, testing protocols remain in place at Pimlico. Benson said all horses in graded stakes will have their blood tested for TCO2, or total carbon dioxide. Elevated levels generally indicate the use of alkalizing agents, which are used for the purpose of enhancing performance.

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Intra-articular injections, commonly used to treat pain, are prohibited within 14 days of racing, while nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are prohibited within 48 hours, Benson said. Any medication that’s administered must be done so in the presence of a Maryland Racing Commission representative.

“These protocols give us the opportunity to really observe the horses and give our vets the tools and the touch points that they need to make sure that these horses are as sound as we need them to be … and [that] we are being as safe as absolutely possible coming into these big races,” Benson said.

The bleak headlines that emerged from the Kentucky Derby obscured real progress in the sport. According to the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database, the rate of 1.25 fatalities per 1,000 starts in 2022 was the sport’s lowest since record-keeping began in 2009. An analysis by University of Bristol professor Tim Parkin found that the six months after HISA launched its safety initiative in 2022 — from July through December — were the safest on record.

At Pimlico, just one horse died in 1,510 starts last year. At Laurel, there were 10 fatalities in 9,664 starts, the course’s third-lowest rate since 2009, according to the database.

Still, worries persist and crises emerge. Five horses suffered fatal accidents at Laurel Park last month, leading to a temporary shutdown over concerns about track conditions.

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Aidan Butler, who heads the Stronach Group’s racing and gaming division, said 18- and 16-member crews tend to Pimlico’s dirt and turf tracks, respectively. Moisture readings are logged daily, according to the company, while depth charts are logged four to five times a week.

“We register and monitor all of the data collected … to make sure that anything that comes out of the parameters is addressed,” Butler said.

Some around the sport wonder whether officials have become overly cautious in some cases. Kentucky Derby favorite Forte was scratched about 10 hours before post time May 6 because of a bruised right foot, the fifth horse withdrawn from the race in about a two-day span. Only three were removed by a trainer; the other two were scratched under state oversight.

“Yeah, I mean, look, they’re athletes,” Forte trainer Todd Pletcher told reporters in Louisville, referring to racehorses, “and any athletes who are competing and training hard are going to have some minor issues — humans, horses, whatever. Discerning what’s potentially a problematic issue versus stiffness is sometimes hard to differentiate.”

He added: “I understand what the veterinarians were seeing [with Forte], and I also understand the level of scrutiny that everyone’s under. Everyone in the industry wants to make racing as safe as possible, and even in situations like that where right now everyone is doing everything they can to make sure that the horses are going out there in the safest possible condition, we still had two fatal breakdowns. It’s something as a trainer that keeps you up at night. So what the solution to that is, I don’t know. I think we’re all trying to improve in that area, but unfortunately a risk is taken every time you go out there.”

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(Last week, Pletcher was suspended 10 days and fined as the result of a positive 2022 drug test involving Forte.)

Steve Asmussen, who trains Preakness entrant Red Route One, said he was “very fortunate” that his Derby horse, Disarm, ran with no problems, finishing fourth. He could not otherwise explain the rash of withdrawals.

“Bad timing, unfortunate circumstances — who knows? — intense pressure,” he said. “There’s just a tremendous amount of variables that I think went into this week and the decisions that are made.”

Trainer Shug McGaughey, who’ll run Perform in Preakness, said he heard from friends outside of racing after the Derby, wondering what had gone wrong in the sport. “I do think it’s very concerning about what went on at Churchill that week,” he said, “and I don’t know that we’ll ever get to the bottom of it.”

Still, McGaughey was left conflicted by what he called the industry’s “over-caution.” He said a veterinarian scratched one of his horses in an undercard race at Churchill Downs under protest from the horse’s jockey, who felt nothing was wrong. Under HISA rules, horses withdrawn from a race for safety reasons have to be placed on the veterinarian’s list for 14 days, meaning they cannot compete in races during that time.

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But McGaughey also acknowledged the sport’s extraordinary circumstances, saying regulatory veterinarians are under “a tremendous amount of pressure” to make what they feel is the right decision in a sport that can’t afford many more wrong ones.

“Seven deaths in a week [at Churchill Downs], and they had three at Keeneland [in Lexington, Kentucky] — that made it 10 deaths that we know about in a month, and that’s too many,” he said. “I don’t think it’s anything we should keep in the closet. I think we need to be very transparent about what’s going on.”

Baltimore Banner reporter Kyle Goon contributed to this report.

jonas.shaffer@thebaltimorebanner.com

Jonas Shaffer is a Ravens beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Ravens for The Baltimore Sun. Shaffer graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Silver Spring. 

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