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Here are the events planned for the 150th Kentucky Derby

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Tomorrow, people in Louisville, Ky., will gather for an annual spring ritual. This year's event will mark 150 years. It is an event that has shaped the culture and identity of the Southern town. The thoroughbred horse race also known as the Running of the Roses, the Kentucky Derby - but this year, safety concerns are paramount. A dozen horses died in last year's event. And to tell us more, Kentucky Public Radio's Sylvia Goodman joins us now. Hi, Sylvia.

SYLVIA GOODMAN, BYLINE: Hi.

CHANG: Hi. So I have never had the chance to go to the Kentucky Derby, even though I've always wanted to. Can you just tell us more about what's so unique about this race? What do people look forward to?

GOODMAN: Sure. So, I mean, every year, Derby is accompanied by this huge festival, and that includes this massive fireworks display called Thunder Over Louisville. You know, we have a parade, a mini marathon. It's really a multi-week affair here in Louisville. And it's also a huge economic driver for us, and the city really plays into it. I think, you know, the hats are quite iconic. The Mint Juleps - all of that...

CHANG: Yeah.

GOODMAN: ...Goes into Derby, and it's all leading up to those 20 or so horses running in the Derby this first Saturday in May. And, you know, for this Derby, some of the current favorites are Sierra Leone, Fierceness, Catching Freedom, but that can change right up until the gates open.

And we're also talking about huge amounts of money here just on that one race, let alone all the others that same day. Last year was about $189 million in...

CHANG: Wow.

GOODMAN: ...Tracked wagers.

CHANG: Oh.

GOODMAN: Yeah. And the race is also remaining pretty international. I mean, there are two Japanese horses racing this year or set to run this year. So it's just a lot of interest every year.

CHANG: That's very cool. Well, despite all the festivities, a celebration, there is a more serious concern right now, right? Like, as we mentioned, last year, a lot of horses died before and after the Derby. Can you talk more about that? Like, what happened?

GOODMAN: Right. I mean, it was really difficult to be there during that whole time. So 12 horses died last year - some in training, some during races - and none of the multiple investigations seemed to turn up any definitive pattern, a connection between the deaths. I spoke to Dr. William Farmer. He's the equine medical director for Churchill Downs.

WILLIAM FARMER: As a veterinarian, as a scientist, it is very frustrating 'cause we like to find answers. We want to know why it happened. We also know that certain things happen in life that we don't have answers for.

GOODMAN: So not very satisfying there - I mean, these are relatively young horses here - I'd say seven years or younger - dying of severe injuries or some just collapsing when horses really should be living to 25 or older.

CHANG: Wow. Well, I mean, if they didn't really figure out a cause, how can they be confident that deaths won't happen this year?

GOODMAN: You know, they really can't be sure. You know, the sad truth is that horses do die in racing.

CHANG: Yeah.

GOODMAN: I think the Jockey Club tracks it as - at 336 horses died last year, and that's just from racing injuries specifically. There was a lot of different culprits. It can -because of - be because of breeding practices. Some have pointed to the frequency of high-intensity exercises. And, you know, there's always - people always talk about the possibility of doping. And although there wasn't evidence of that last year in the Churchill Downs deaths, this is the first time - this year, actually - that the federal Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, or HISA, has an antidoping regime in place at Churchill Downs. This is HISA CEO Lisa Lazarus.

LISA LAZARUS: We feel really comfortable, you know, knowing that these horses have been tested repeatedly and that ultimately, you know, if they're running in the Derby, it means they have not had an issue with our program.

CHANG: That is Kentucky Public Radio's Sylvia Goodman. Thank you, Sylvia.

GOODMAN: Thank you. Glad to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sylvia Goodman
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