Officials tracking an unusually high number of horse deaths at Colonial Downs said an ongoing investigation hasn’t indicated problems with the turf course or dirt track at the Virginia racetrack.
During an eight-day period earlier in July, five horses died. One suffered a heart attack; one was a steeplechase horse that fell over a fence and broke his leg; and the other three suffered sesamoid (ankle) injuries, though one had a previous sesamoid injury, officials said.
“It’s an issue we don’t take lightly,” said Stan Bowker, executive director of the Virginia Racing Commission. “We certainly look at every horse. We autopsy any horse that dies if we don’t have an explanation for it.”
The autopsy includes taking blood and urine samples for testing, Bowker said.
Iain Woolnough, vice president and general manager at Colonial Downs, said racing surfaces usually are the first to take the blame, but at Colonial Downs they are “very, very safe.” Four of the five injuries occurred on the grass course.
“In our situation we haven’t found any instances in which the track was unsafe,” said Bowker, who noted there are other factors. “We’ve got horses racing here that are older horses sometimes trying turf for the first time.”
Colonial Downs has a 180-foot-wide turf course that’s actually two courses depending on where the rails are set. The track expects to run about 280 grass races during the current 40-day meet, far more than any other track in North America. The course is considered one of the best in the country.
In an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Dr. C. Richard Harden, the commission state veterinarian, said that since 1997, the year Colonial Downs opened, there have been about 30 horse deaths, less than three per year. He also said there doesn’t appear to be a link among this year’s breakdowns.
Bowker said horsemen “usually see things before anybody else does,” and they haven’t indicated there are problems with the racing surfaces.