With the sport reeling from far too many tragic horse deaths in recent months, the Kentucky Horse Race Commission is responding to criticism by creating a new position. The state will hire a Safety Steward to be responsible for overseeing the health and well-being of horses in the race industry.
According to a job listing from the KHRC, the new position will “oversee safety procedures and ensure compliance of both Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority … standards and rules at licensed thoroughbred racetracks and training centers.”
At present time, many of those duties are being handled by other KHRC staff, who have additional responsibilities in the Kentucky horse racing industry.
Why the KHRC is hiring a Safety Steward
There were 15 horse deaths surrounding the Triple Crown, including 12 deaths at Churchill Downs. That staggering number has led to condemnations from advocacy groups, and it’s led Churchill Downs to move live racing to Ellis Park while it implements changes to improve horse safety.
The KHRC says the new Safety Steward position will be tasked with adherence to safety protocols. A few trainers, namely Bob Baffert and Mark Hennig, have had multiple horses die during training in 2023.
Typically, the Triple Crown season in the spring pushes the sport of horse racing to the front of the news cycle. But the rash of injuries and deaths to horses in 2023 has created a negative reaction. Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy, criticized the sport this week.
“The trainers have the most control of the horses and they must assume responsibility when young, healthy horses die in competition,” Pacelle said in a written statement. “We should not accept that it’s part of the business of racing for hundreds of horses to die every year in American racing. Trainers who lose horses should face mandatory suspensions.”
Safety Steward job responsibilities
A Safety Steward, says the KHRC, would “monitor daily activities both in the barn areas and on the racetrack” — at Churchill Downs and all other racetracks in the state. This should place more oversight on trainers, who often work under the pressure to produce winning horses.
There may be several factors that have contributed to the unusual number of equine deaths in the race season. Uncommon warmer weather in some states, an increase in race schedules and travel, unsound veterinary care, and the strain of high-level competitive racing.
A Safety Steward, which would be an executive level position in Kentucky, would conduct pre-meet racetrack safety inspections, as well as “monitor compliance with racetrack rules during morning training, monitoring starting gate procedures, and monitoring ambulance and medical personnel protocols for horse and riders, ” according to the job description posted on the KHRC website.
In addition, the Kentucky racing Safety Steward would hold a position on the Mortality Review Board, which investigates equine deaths in the state, both at races and in training.