The 7 biggest takeaways from "Broken Horses," the New York Times' unsettling horse-racing exposé

From rampant doping to targeted breeding, the sport of kings has become hazardous to the health of its athletes

By Gabriella Ferrigine

Staff Writer

Published April 30, 2024 5:45PM (EDT)

Jockey Javier Castellano rides Mage #8 to a win in the 149th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 06, 2023 in Louisville, Kentucky (Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Jockey Javier Castellano rides Mage #8 to a win in the 149th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 06, 2023 in Louisville, Kentucky (Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“Horses dying in clusters is not a new phenomenon,” Joe Drape, a New York Times reporter, says in the outlet's new documentary, “Broken Horses.”

“It’s just now people are paying attention and want to know why.”

"Broken Horses," the latest episode from the third season of "The New York Times Presents," premiered on April 26 on FX and Hulu, just ahead of the 150th running of the Kentucky Derby at the historic Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. Last year, 12 horses died after sustaining severe injuries on that very track. Those deaths were compounded by additional clusters of fatalities at other prominent races, including the Preakness Stakes in May, the Belmont Stakes in June and a race at New York's Saratoga Springs course.

Drape, along with colleague Melissa Hoppert, held pivotal roles in the investigation into the spate of horse deaths that cropped up last year. The NYT's new expose endeavors to pull back the curtain on horse racing's seamy, systemic issues with doping and unbridled breeding practices through exclusive interviews and evidentiary support, giving viewers a better understanding of why such intensely powerful animals are falling apart.

Here are the key takeaways from "Broken Horses."

The rise of the "super trainer" changes horse racing
As the oldest continuously held sporting event in the U.S., horse racing was once considered a pastime for the wealthy. However, the sport saw a dramatic shift with the genesis of the super trainer, the person who takes horses from owners to ready them for competition through exercise. They also bear the responsibility of deciding which races a horse should enter, and ensuring that the animal is adequately prepared and healthy enough to participate. 
Different from a standard trainer, a super trainer is equivalent to a franchise equipped with hundreds of horses and premier stables, typically garnering millions of dollars in prize money on the track. As noted by Drape, who has been covering horse racing for 25 years, the ballooning economics underpinning the sport has created a "win now culture."
"I'm afraid that it's going to eclipse the culture of, 'let's care for our horses first,'" Drape said. 
A group of super trainers calling themselves "The Avengers" band together
Presumably pulling from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a subset of super trainers teamed up to form an ownership group, dubbing themselves "The Avengers." Functioning something like a hedge fund — which is notable, given that some of the super trainers are hedge fund managers — the group pools their money together in order to buy top-quality horses in large quantities, thereby incurring less risk.
Bob Baffert's unethical training practices
The most notable super trainer featured in "Broken Horses" is Bob Baffert, and for good reason. Over the course of his career, Baffert's horses have racked up nearly $350 million on the racetrack, and he has won six Kentucky Derbies, a record eight Preakness Stakes, three Belmont Stakes and two Triple Crowns.
As the face of the industry, Baffert has trained some incredible athletes. The documentary hones in on one of those horses: Havnameltdown, a standout four-year-colt who was euthanized in May of 2020 after suffering an injury to his front left ankle at the Pimlico Race Court in Baltimore, Maryland, ahead of the Preakness Stakes. "Broken Horses" also includes interviews with Havnameltdown's owner, Katherine Devall; though visibly upset as she recounts memories of the horse, Devall does not find Baffert to be at fault for her horse's death. "It's just things that happen," she says.
Havnameltdown's death is not an isolated incident. As Drape noted, Baffert has a ratio of six horse deaths to every 1,000 starts, making him one of the most deadly trainers in California. From 2011-2013, seven of his horses died, and it subsequently comes out that he is administering thyroid medications to every horse in his care. Though Baffert is plagued with a number of high-profile medical violations, his quasi-celebrity status in the industry and ability to rake in funds amounts to small fines and slaps on the wrist.
Prior to Havnameltdown's death, Baffert was suspended from the Kentucky Derby through 2024, after Medina Spirit, the 2021 champion he trained, failed a post-race drug test. Baffert's initial suspension was only meant to be two years long; however, Churchill Downs elected to extend his moratorium, arguing that his unwillingness to accept responsibility for the doping indicated that he “cannot be trusted to avoid future misconduct," per the NYT.
The proliferation of pharmaceuticals in horse racing leads to an investigation
The documentary delves into the differences between banned and controlled substances, underscoring how ubiquitous the administration of both forms of drugs to horses is in the industry. 
In the fall of 2015, the Jockey Club, a horse racing company with 18th-century origins, hired a team of former FBI investigators to look into corruption in the sport. The probe, which included substantial undercover work, led to the indictment of 30 trainers, veterinarians and drug distributors in a widespread doping scheme in March of 2020. Among those criminally charged were Jorge Navarro, a well-known New Jersey trainer who recklessly and openly referred to himself as the "Juice Man," and Jason Servis, who trained one of the top racehorses in the world, Maximum Security.
Congress passes the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA)
Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., spearheaded the passing of the HISA legislation that aims to have the federal government police the horseracing industry, creating a form of centralized authority.
"Broken Horses" features testimony from Lisa Lazarus, Chief Executive Officer of HISA, who oversaw the launch of the law's anti-doping program in May of 2023. The program sharply tamped down the frequency of doping in horseracing by implementing more stringent testing protocols. Additionally, penalties for violating substance rules can now amount to thousands of dollars in fines as well as lengthy suspension periods. 
Reckless breeding is still a pressing issue
Though the introduction of HISA made significant headway in regulating the frequency of doping in horseracing, the organization has no oversight when it comes to breeding or sales. They only deal with horses that are racing.
As the documentary pointed out, the breeding pool has shrunk significantly in recent years for money. For example, a now-retired champion horse called Flightline bred 152 mares in one year, producing foals valued at $200,000 each.
"Breeding has started tending toward speed versus distance," said Dr. Kate Papp, a veterinarian. "That's not doing anything good for longevity and bone density long term. So the more we breed for these spindle-legged, really fast horses instead of durable, long-distance horses, the more problems we probably will be having."
Necropsies of dead horses yield telling findings
HISA launched an investigation into the 12 fatalities at Churchill Downs in 2023, focusing on several components: testing of the racetrack surface, and a comprehensive veterinary review of all the vet records. 
In reviewing the necropsies, and specifically the orthopedic breakdown, veterinarian Dr. Sheila Lyons found that the horses had significant pre-existing injuries, not only in the limb that broke down but in other limbs as well. Notably, the reports did not have drug history.
The New York Times had Dr. Lyons and Dr. Papp conducted an independent review of the records related to the 2023 deaths at Churchill Downs and Pimlico Race Course. "We don't even know if these horses were running with legal therapeutic medications," Lyons said. "If a horse gave the ultimate price, we want to learn what contributed to that and make changes."
Lyons ultimately determined that Havnameltdown's pathology was unheard of. He had lesions in all four fetlock joints, which occurs when repetitive injury wears away at cartilage. This sort of injury, according to Lyons, is easily diagnosed. Additionally, previous vet exams detected a choppy or abnormal gait for Havnameltdown. Given that these reports are available to the horse's trainer and veterinarian, Lyons said, "How it was never red-flagged just baffles me."
Havnameltdown also had corticosteroid and hyaluronic acid injected into both hocks and stifles, which are different joints in a horse's leg. Doing so, with his compromised pathology, would have likely enabled him to race and train in a way that he couldn't without those drugs, Lyons noted, adding that she felt his death could have been prevented. "Continuing to train and race a horse that has significant pathology in one or more joints is abusive," she argued.
"It was only a matter of time," Papp said. "Havnameltdown should not have been racing that day. Absolutely not, under any circumstances."

"Broken Horses" is streaming now on FX and Hulu.

By Gabriella Ferrigine

Gabriella Ferrigine is a staff writer at Salon. Originally from the Jersey Shore, she moved to New York City in 2016 to attend Columbia University, where she received her B.A. in English and M.A. in American Studies. Formerly a staff writer at NowThis News, she has an M.A. in Magazine Journalism from NYU and was previously a news fellow at Salon.

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Animal Abuse Bob Baffert Broken Horses Doping Horse Racing Kentucky Derby List New York Times