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Safety is a focus long before the race begins, and it starts with training for our personnel and horses. A vital component of our safety program is continuing education and training for horsemen, including trainers, jockeys, grooms, and blacksmiths. Working with accreditation programs such as the North American Racing Academy, Racing Officials Accreditation Program and the Groom Elite Program, we make certain the backside personnel are safely and professionally performing their important jobs.
It’s not just our people who go to school – so do our horses. Our gate crew is highly trained in loading procedures and the handling of horses, and they in turn teach the horses in the starting gate how to behave before the gate opens, a practice that helps deter both equine and human injuries.
For the purposes of competition, all Thoroughbreds foaled in the Northern Hemisphere – regardless of their actual month and day of birth – turn one year older on Jan. 1. CDI is instituting a policy by which Thoroughbreds must be at least 24 calendar months old before they are permitted to race, in the hopes of promoting healthy and strong equine athletes that can enjoy long, competitive careers. Previously, Thoroughbreds competing at CDI tracks were allowed to race at the official age of 2 years, regardless of their actual date of birth.
In the paddock, we help keep horses safe by padding the stalls. Each of the 20 stalls in Churchill Downs’ paddock is equipped with 3/8-inch safety padding from Humane Manufacturing Company LLC. The padding is designed to provide protection for the horse and prevent injuries. Also, Churchill Downs’ saddling paddock, walking ring, paddock runway and winner’s circle are equipped with extremely durable, rubber Pavesafe™ pavers that provide a comfortable and resilient walking surface for the horse. The slip-resistant pavers provide extra shock absorption and protection for horses while also helping control bacteria and dust.
Horseshoes also play an important safety role. Churchill Downs has banned front horseshoe toe grabs longer than two millimeters for all Thoroughbreds in training or in competition at the track. Years of scientific study show a significant increase in the risk of front-leg injuries when toe grabs (cleats on the front of the horseshoes intended to improve traction) are used.
Once our horses and jockeys make it to the starting gate, they’re well-protected there, too. All starting gates at Churchill Downs are outfitted with high-quality foam padding from Best Pad™, a leading innovator of safety products for the horse racing industry. This seamless padding is applied to all metal surfaces of the starting gate, including front and rear poles, face plates, handrails, superstructure, and pontoons. The use of safety padding protects both jockeys and horses from injury as they begin each race.