Safety A Priority for Kentucky Derby

Changes for racehorse safety could hit Arlington Park by 2010

More than 20 new safety changes aimed at keeping racehorses out of harm's way will be put into place for this year’s Kentucky Derby, organizers of the event announced Monday.

Restrictions banning horses younger than 24 months old, the whipping of horses and field limits for certain races are among the changes for the Derby's upcoming 135th running.

The issue of racehorse safety came to the forefront of professional horseracing after the sudden death of filly Eight Belles at the 2008 Kentucky Derby.  Shortly after finishing the race in second place, Eight Belles suffered compound fractures in both front legs and was euthanized immediately on the track.

Event organizers are enacting the policy changes to help ensure the safety of the horses and bolster the track's reputation for the first running of the race after Eight Belles' highly publicized death.  "We think we've always had one of the safest racetracks in the country, but we think these initiatives will make us even safer" Churchill Downs General Manager Jim Gates said of the safety changes.

Churchill Downs Incorporated hopes to enact the changes at the other racetracks the company owns, including Chicagoland’s Arlington Park in Arlington Heights

Horses racing in this year's Derby will undergo intensified steroid testing and limits on horse whipping will also be enforced.

The track itself will also undergo changes.   The starting gates will be fortified with extra foam padding and before any horse takes a step out of that gate, the track's dirt will be tested by mechanized robotic hooves that simulate horses' movements while running to ensure no undue stress will be placed on the racers.

There is no word yet on whether any changes are in the works to make the Kentucky Derby spectators any safer from infield mud fights, portable restroom race injuries or overindulgence in mint-flavored bourbon.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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