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Polk discusses 13 year journey to improve safety in horse racing

Published: Jun. 9, 2021 at 5:08 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 9, 2021 at 7:04 PM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - Dr. Hiram Polk is one of the founding members of the Jockey Club Thoroughbred Safety Committee. It’s a committee that was formed in May of 2008, just days after Kentucky Derby 134.

“As everybody recalls Eight Belles broke both front legs as she pulled up after the Derby,” Polk recalled.

The Safety Committee got right to work.

“Every segment of the racing population came to talk to us,” he said. “I think it took us five years to find out most of the key things.”

One of the key improvements, databases of how many horses die on the race track, in training or during races.

Along with databases for rulings and violations for any given trainer or owner.

“The state’s kept their own record independently but it was sort of nobody ever told any stories out of school,” Polk said.

Like the story of 2008 Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown and his trainer Rick Dutrow.

“He had run the horse on corticosteroids, which were technically legal, and he said, this horse is so good, I’ll take him off of steroids,” Polk remembered. “A little stress reaction or a minor operation or even a race like the Belmont Stakes and Big Brown probably had the poorest performance of any horse who ever was seeking a Triple Crown and he had had his steroids withdrawn.”

Big Brown finished ninth in a field of nine that day at Belmont Park, pulling up in the stretch. In 2011, Dutrow was suspended for 10 years by the New York State Racing and Wagering Board.

Jump ahead to 2021, another black eye for the sport, as 7-time Kentucky Derby winner Bob Baffert and his horse, Medina Spirit are facing disqualification.

“I think if you’re gonna have the rules, than you’ve got to enforce them,” Polk said. “I think it may be unfair to the horse, but you know it’s like Maximum Security proved he was a good horse long after he was disqualified in the Derby. He beat really good horses in really hard races and Medina Spirit will get his chance but I think if you have this finding under this circumstance, he doesn’t deserve to be the winner and the horse that ran second, third and fourth deserve to be promoted.”

The only Kentucky Derby winner to be disqualified after the race became official was Dancer’s Image in 1968.

“Interestingly butazolidin was legalized the very next year, and what he was disqualified for became legal and rapidly spread everywhere,” Polk pointed out.

Polk says the committee has recommendations for the next steps the industry must take.

“Out of competition testing and using surveillance methods rather than just drug testing.,” he said.

The Horse Racing Safety and Integrity Act is a big part of the next step.

“Establishing the rules, finding a laboratory and using it for everything and when you have the rules, determine what’s a violation, what’s not and the punishment should be both appropriate and swift,” Polk said.

He says having the U.S. Anti Doping Agency on board to assist in cleaning up the drug issues in the sport is huge, including those in the sales ring. Another focus for his committee has been finding homes for retired horses, which they’ve done for around 10,000 so far.

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