Safety from Start to Finish

Churchill Downs Showcases Enduring Dedication to Equine Safety 

Written by Kevin Kerstein

Every year, more than 10,000 horses compete across Churchill Downs Incorporated’s (CDI) racetrack properties. To put that in perspective, that’s more than 6 times the number of active players on NFL rosters and 14 times the number of players who made an at bat during the 2023 MLB season. 

 While 10,000 horses seems like a large number, they are each carefully monitored by Dr. Will Farmer and his dedicated staff based at the Churchill Downs Equine Medical Center.  

 Beginning in 2019, CDI invested more than $8 million to expand the backside and construct an on-site Equine Medical Center at Churchill Downs Racetrack. Located adjacent to the barn area, the state-of-the-art facility serves as the hub for Dr. Farmer and his staff – Dr. Dana Stead and Madison Jackson – as they work with federal, state and local veterinarians to help serve the needs of more than 1,200 horses based at Churchill Downs and monitor the activities at other CDI properties such as Ellis Park and Turfway Park, located within a convenient two-hour drive from the facility. 

 “Churchill Downs has a longstanding history of equine safety. So that’s something I really believe in and was one of the major reasons I decided to take this position four years ago,” shared Dr. Farmer. “My personality and desire for my career is to improve the safety and the welfare of the racehorse. Having worked for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission for several years before this job, when I began at Churchill Downs, it really felt more like a homecoming for me than a job.” 

 Dr. Farmer’s passion for equine care runs deep. The Indiana-native graduated from Purdue University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in 2006. Prior to joining Churchill Downs, he served as a state regulator in California and Kentucky, working at many major racing events including the Breeders’ Cup.  

 While Dr. Farmer and his staff find their base in Kentucky, their work extends to many other racing jurisdictions across North America. Currently, CDI operates live race meets at nine racetracks across six different states. Dr. Farmer closely works with each state’s racing commission to ensure trainers and their staff follow all rules and regulations.  

 A typical day at the Churchill Downs Equine Medical Center is anything but ordinary. One of the many tasks Dr. Farmer and his team do is meticulously sift through copious amounts of data and past performances of horses, ensuring no detail goes unnoticed. Through that research, each entry across all properties is scanned by Dr. Farmer and his team. 

 “Sometimes we’ll see horses who may have been off for an extended period of time, and I’ll call the trainer to see if there was an issue or if it was routine rest,” Farmer said. “Our team and the trainers are looking out for the safety of the horse. By having that open dialogue, it helps in the care of the horse and to make sure they are competing at their best.” 

 One of the many crucial investments CDI made to the Equine Medical Center was the installation of a Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scanner, which can help detect and prevent equine musculoskeletal injuries using cutting edge technology. In partnership with Hagyard Equine Medical Institute, Churchill Downs installed the PET scan machine at its Equine Medical Center in early 2023 and it immediately became an indispensable tool for attending veterinarians to utilize and is revolutionizing the way they care for horses on the Churchill Downs backstretch. 

 A PET scan is a diagnostic imaging test that can help identify abnormal metabolic activity in the bones of a racehorse. Recent scientific studies have supported PET image findings as a highly effective diagnostic approach for identifying potential issues in the lower limbs of racehorses. Repeated PET scans can also be used to monitor a horse’s recovery prior to returning to strenuous athletic work. The pairing of PET scans with other imaging methods will greatly advance the identification of at-risk horses not just at Churchill Downs, but across the globe where this practice is currently being implemented.  

 “We are beyond excited to be able to partner with Hagyard Equine Medical Institute, a world-class equine hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, to bring this ground-breaking diagnostic imaging to Churchill Downs,” Dr. Farmer stated. “To be able to have this advanced level of diagnostics available on-site is a great step forward to improving the welfare and safety of our local horses.” 

 The PET machine is just one piece of equipment in the Churchill Downs Equine Medical Center that helps serve the needs of horses.  

 While Churchill Downs is located within a short drive of several equine hospitals, the Equine Medical Center can serve as a triage facility which allows Dr. Farmer and other veterinarians to help stabilize horses for transport to equine hospitals.  

 “It was designed to be a triage facility with four large, open stalls,” Dr. Farmer shared. “They’re always bedded and ready should a horse need them. The idea is we don’t ever have to use them, but if a horse needs additional diagnostics or advanced care, this building is designed to be able to handle their needs in a safe and controlled environment. Injuries do happen and some of which we simply can’t control. What I can control is being the advocate for the horse.”  

 One of the other technologies Farmer uses is StrideSAFE – a tool that was created to collect data while horses are in training or running in races that can help detect potential injuries. During the 2023 season at Churchill Downs, all starters carried a small three-ounce sensor in their saddlecloth pocket that records how a horse is moving 2,400 times every second. The sensor helps trainers and veterinarians to identify subtle abnormalities in high-speed movements. 

 “With these sensors we can monitor and predict before catastrophic injuries happen,” said trainer Dale Romans, whose horses have made nearly 15,000 starts across his 38-year career. “Every horse that runs at Churchill Downs carries that monitor. Every horse that now breezes in my barn carries that monitor. It measures data 2,400 times per second and can tell us when a horse is heading down a bad path.” 

 “One time I had a horse get a red flag that he wasn’t doing well, something was off on him. We couldn’t figure it out,” continued Romans. “We jog him on the road, he’s fine. The rider said he’s fine. We took him over for a PET Scan and found a very small hairline fracture in a cannon bone. Without this technology, it could have been a catastrophic injury.”  

 StrideSAFE technology was developed by Dr. David Lambert and based on a system called StrideMaster out of Australia. It is designed to sense acceleration, movement and impact in horses. The model for StrideSAFE was based upon measurements in tens of thousands of horses across North America and Australia.  

 As new technologies continue to be advanced within the sport, tracks across the country are now under new uniform integrity and safety rules through the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA).  

 Established in 2020 when the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act was signed into federal law, HISA is responsible for drafting and enforcing uniform safety and integrity rules in Thoroughbred racing within the U.S. HISA’s rules and anti-doping medication committees are designed to enhance the safety and well-being of both horses and riders while ensuring the integrity of the sport for the benefit of the industry, fans and bettors.  

 According to HISA, “the organization will continue to update and evolve its rules on an ongoing basis as data, experience on the ground and stakeholder feedback dictate.” 

 Though the Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve (GI) may be the crown jewel of CDI’s racing calendar and serve as the company’s flagship event, Dr. Farmer and his team treat every horse with the same level of care and attention, irrespective of their pedigree or the level at which they compete. 

 “Obviously, there’s more pressure when looking at those horses in the Kentucky Derby but when it comes down to our job, it’s all the same,” Dr. Farmer said. “The backstretch at any of our racetracks is a tight knit community. From the trainers, to assistants, to grooms, to veterinarians, we are all looking out for the best interest of the horse so they can go out and compete at the highest level.”