In-Race Safety

We’re proud that Churchill Downs maintains one of the safest racetracks in the world, but we continually look for ways to improve conditions and increase the safety of our horses and riders. Measures in place to help ensure safety on the track focus primarily on protective gear and the racetrack surface itself.

Churchill Downs mandates that safety vests meet ASTM International standards (formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials) and be worn by all jockeys, exercise riders, outriders, pony riders and starting gate crew members. The vests are designed to provide maximum protection of the entire torso from the collarbone to the hipbone.

Safety helmets are just as important.  All riders on the racetrack must wear safety helmets that meet ASTM International standards (formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials). Safety helmets are tested to ensure they provide maximum protection from head injuries.

The track surface plays a vital role in safety.  Experts have long considered Churchill Downs’ dirt track to be one of the safest surfaces in horse racing. The one-mile oval stretches 80 feet in width and has a unique 12-inch resilient clay base on top of a 25-foot sandy loam sub-base. Eight inches of carefully sifted and mixed materials sit atop the clay base: a blend of 75% round river sand, 23% silt and 2% clay. The silt and clay function as a bind for the sand. The top three inches are fluffed and act as a cushion for the horse, while the compacted, resilient five-inch cushion underneath protects the horse from ever reaching the sturdy base. Churchill Downs’ stretch is one of the longest in horse racing, with a distance of 1,234½ feet from the turn for home to the finish line. Since December 1981, the course has been maintained by Raymond “Butch” Lehr Jr., Churchill Downs’ award-winning and world-renowned track superintendent who was an understudy to legendary trackman Thurman Pangburn. Before daily training and prior to each race, Lehr and his crew carefully groom the surface to ensure the safest and most ideal conditions for participants. Techniques include harrowing, rolling, grading, sealing, and watering the track, all of which are dependent upon climate and weather conditions.

CDI is expanding its existing testing of track surfaces to implement regular, standardized, third-party testing of its racetracks, including a battery of laboratory tests of track surfaces and ground-penetrating radar to ensure track consistency and integrity.  CDI has secured the services of the world’s top track surface researcher, Dr. Mick Peterson, a University of Maine professor of mechanical engineering who has developed an innovative robotic hoof device that duplicates the force and speed of a horse as it runs on a racetrack.  Data generated by these and other tests will help to ensure that CDI tracks maintain safe and consistent track surfaces for both horses and jockeys.  The Company is also a founding member of and financial contributor to the new Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory, which is identifying safe practices for the future by facilitating and advocating measurements of track safety effectiveness.

Churchill Downs installed a state-of-the-art safety rail aptly named the “Rider Protection System” in 2001. The rail offers three primary safeguards to help protect jockeys from serious injury in the event of an accident. The system’s 24-inch-wide anodized aluminum panels are affixed to the top of the rail and shield riders from direct contact with the rail in the event of a mishap. The safety shields are flexible and angled toward the inside to direct a rider’s fall away from the track and oncoming horses. The posts that support the rail are offset two feet from the track to provide a large safety area under the rail, which protects fallen jockeys from oncoming horses.

Two to three races daily are staged on Churchill Downs’ lush Matt Winn Turf Course. Installed in 1985, the 7/8-mile oval is sand-based and composed of 90% fescue and 10% Kentucky bluegrass. To keep the inner running lanes in top condition, the inside rail on the 80-foot-wide course is rotated on a regular basis between lane 1 (on the hedge), lane 2 (15 feet off the hedge) and lane 3 (22 feet off the hedge). The course also features a state-of-the-art drainage system under the turf to ensure that the course dries quickly. 

Experts agree that the riding crop is a necessary tool, as it is instrumental in controlling and steering the horse so that it maintains a straight course. Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, in concert with a model rule proposed by the Association of Racing Commissioners International, have mandated new riding crops that are considered kinder to the horse. These new crops are lighter and shorter than the traditional crop and feature an elongated foam flap that protects the horse from discomfort. Riders are only permitted to use a crop on a horse’s hindquarters or shoulders. Rules regarding the use of riding crops are strictly enforced by Kentucky Horse Racing Commission stewards.