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How Kentucky Keeps Horse Racing Deaths Secret

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Last year, an average of 10 horses a week died at U.S. racetracks. That's according to a racing industry group called The Jockey Club. Typically, information about those deaths - who owned or trained the horses, for example - is public. That's true of California tracks like Santa Anita, which has witnessed a spate of deaths, tracks in New York where the Belmont Stakes is run tonight. It's not true, though, of Kentucky, horse racing's home state. Caitlin McGlade with the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting looked into why that is.

CAITLIN MCGLADE, BYLINE: It's two weeks after the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs - first race of the day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: They're in the gate, and they're off.

MCGLADE: It is also the first race ever for Kinley Karole, a 3-year-old filly. She pulls out slow and trails far behind the pack. When she starts to catch up, her back leg snaps. The announcer doesn't mention it. The Daily Racing chart says that she went wrong. But Kinley Karole was euthanized. And even in the midst of a huge national conversation about horse racing deaths at one of the most storied racetracks, she never made headlines. A lot of states consider identities of horses that died, as well as where and when they died, to be public record. But in Kentucky, the horse racing capital of the world, officials say open records law protects the business interests of horse trainers and owners.

Racing deaths have been on the rise nationally. Kentucky reported 38 race fatalities last year. The state has detailed data, including which horses die and who trains them, but it's not public record. Amye Bensenhaver with the Kentucky Open Government Coalition says this makes it harder to hold accountable some of the racing industry's biggest players.

AMYE BENSENHAVER: Establishing these impediments to access, they are tipping the balance in favor of the industry rather than the public's right to know.

MCGLADE: Kentucky's equine medical director told me there are no public records identifying dead horses, and she didn't respond to additional questions. So I asked to see necropsies filed by veterinarians. Officials said they would give those but with a big caveat - they'd redact the name of the horse, where and when it died, who owned it and really any information to identify the horse. Why? They argued state law allows them to withhold these details because they're generally considered confidential, and sharing them would put trainers and owners at a competitive disadvantage.

JAMES GAGLIANO: I really question the wisdom of a statement like that.

MCGLADE: That's James Gagliano. He's the president of The Jockey Club, the thoroughbred breed registry for the United States and Canada. And his organization encourages tracks to publish injury and death statistics. Churchill Downs does not - another reason that horse deaths in Kentucky have been shrouded in secrecy for so long.

GAGLIANO: These are facts, and there's nothing wrong with reporting facts.

MCGLADE: So I called around to other states. New Jersey, home of the Haskell Invitational Stakes - it's not confidential there. California - Racing Board spokesman Mike Martin had a list from Santa Anita Park on hand.

MIKE MARTIN: Yes. Yeah. I might be able to send that to you within the next minute if you asked me for it. Yeah.

MCGLADE: That track suspended racing after a spate of fatalities. He said I could find out about deaths at other tracks through a public records request. Maryland's Racing Commission emailed me a statewide list after a quick phone call the Monday after Preakness. And Illinois...

MICKEY EZZO: Sure, absolutely.

MCGLADE: That's Mickey Ezzo of the Illinois Racing Board. He says competitive disadvantage doesn't seem to be an issue there.

EZZO: I've been doing this for 20 years and never have gotten any complaints from horsemen when that information was released to the public.

MCGLADE: In New York, which will host the third leg of the Triple Crown at Belmont Park today, racing officials publish an online database of horse deaths and injuries, so I didn't even have to ask for it. I found trainer Robert Barbara in that database. He lost a horse named Tommy T during a race in Queens, N.Y., this year. He says, if it's out there, it's out there.

ROBERT BARBARA: I mean, if people go to the Internet and see this stuff, that, you know, I had five horses break down in two years or something like that - will it mean something to somebody? I guess it will. Does it bother me? No, it doesn't because it is what it is.

MCGLADE: I didn't have a database to find the trainer who worked with Kinley Karole, that horse that died last month at Churchill Downs, but I found him. His name is Larry Demeritte, and he didn't hesitate to talk about what happened that day.

LARRY DEMERITTE: You go from excitement to heart broke.

MCGLADE: Demeritte doesn't think his horses' deaths should be confidential.

DEMERITTE: I would like to see that people trust us more in the game. The more secretive you are, the - people always say, there's something shady about it.

MCGLADE: And as national conversation continues about problems facing the horse racing industry, pressure is likely to mount for less secrecy in the sport's epicenter, Kentucky. For NPR News, I'm Caitlin McGlade in Louisville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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