04/09/2009 12:00AM

Churchill cited by safety alliance


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Speaking before a racing safety information kiosk just inside the entrance to Churchill Downs, National Thoroughbred Racing Association and track officials announced Thursday that Churchill Downs has been fully accredited by the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance. The track is the first to be evaluated and designated by the alliance.

The accreditation of Churchill Downs came following a written application from the track, meetings with alliance representatives, and onsite evaluations from alliance and veterinary officials.

Alex Waldrop, NTRA president and CEO, said the accreditation of Churchill Downs and the evaluations of 54 more racetracks still the come, is a "big step but only a first step" in improving racing safety.

The alliance, formed last October with the goal of establishing national uniform safety and integrity standards, includes 55 racetracks in North America and major national horsemen's organizations. Certification standards cover five areas: injury reporting and prevention; creating a safer racing environment; aftercare and transition of retired racehorses; uniform medication, testing and penalties; and safety research.

Waldrop acknowledged that the death of Eight Belles from injuries suffered in running second in last year's Kentucky Derby "was a catalyst" for the formation of the alliance, but he said the idea had been in consideration since the breakdown of Barbaro in the 2006 Preakness and his subsequent death from laminitis.

Accreditation covers a two-year period, although it can be revoked if the alliance determines a track is not continuing to meet its standards.

Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, an independent monitor of the alliance, said he was impressed with commitment of Churchill Downs and its employees toward improving safety. He said he would like to see certification for all tracks - including Churchill Downs - be for only a one-year period, however.

Churchill Downs - as home of the Kentucky Derby - was selected as the first track to be evaluated. Next up is Keeneland, whose alliance evaluation began Thursday, and Pimlico and Belmont Park are expected to be evaluated before they stage their respective Triple Crown races, the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, Waldrop said.

Although participation in the alliance is voluntary, and it does not have specific power to issue penalties on tracks not receiving accreditation, Waldrop said tracks not participating or those that fail to receive accreditation will suffer in the court of public opinion.

"Fans will gravitate toward those committed to health and safety," he said.

Among the safety changes Churchill Downs announced this year prior to receiving their Alliance accreditation include "Supertesting" of all winning horses for more than 100 performance-enhancing drugs; the freezing of equine blood and urine samples to allow for retrospective testing; the banning of anabolic steroids and front shoes with toe grabs larger than two millimeters; and mandatory and uniform reporting of equine injuries to be tracked in a industry database.

With regard to the Kentucky Derby, which can have a field up to 20 horses, Churchill Downs general manager Jim Gates said track officials determined there is not a safety need to reduce its field size.