They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

They might as well. Race horses continue to die at American tracks in shocking numbers. My article about thoroughbred breakdowns, below, was originally published in the New York Times in August, 2006. Six years later, we are still having the same arguments, and too many horses are still dying. At Aqueduct Racetrack in New York, nineteen horses have died in the last four months. A special panel has been appointed by Governor Andrew Cuomo to investigate. Meanwhile, a flood of cash pours into horse racing from casino interests. More on this subject will be forthcoming. Stay tuned.

Justice for Barbaro

BARBARO, the tragic hero of this year’s Preakness Stakes, is on the mend and it’s back to business for thoroughbred racing. This weekend the celebrated Mid-Summer Derby — the Travers Stakes — is taking place at Saratoga Race Course. And this week, a panel appointed by Gov. George Pataki is scheduled to begin considering bids to run New York’s $2.7 billion racing franchise at Saratoga, Aqueduct and Belmont racetracks. The current franchise expires in December 2007…

All that is good news for the racing business but bad news for every thoroughbred headed for the track. In the aftermath of Barbaro’s injury, it seemed that news media attention might crack open a window on the racing world’s dirty little secret: the scandal of thoroughbred breakdowns. It didn’t happen. But in the weeks ahead, Governor Pataki will be presented with a historic opportunity to change the fate of the thoroughbred by spurring the creation of a national database on breakdowns.

“Breaking down” is the euphemism of choice in the racing world, usually followed by “humanely euthanized.” But it would be more precise to call it something like “horrifying catastrophic injury” followed by “veterinary execution.”

I wish I could tell you precisely how many horses break down and die at America’s racetracks every year, but I can’t. No one can. Comprehensive national statistics on thoroughbred breakdowns are more elusive than Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.

In a 1993 Sports Illustrated article, William Nack cited a University of Minnesota study that projected 840 fatal breakdowns at American tracks in 1992, or “one fatality for every 92 races.” The most common figure cited during the Barbaro affair was 1.4 per 1,000 starts, from a 1992 Kentucky survey. This summer, a staggering 26 horses have died at Chicago’s Arlington Park because of running-related injuries.

An official with the American Association of Equine Practitioners told me that there is no central body in the United States keeping statistics on fatal thoroughbred injuries, and that the association has not conducted any studies on the number of injuries.

We don’t know why horses break down. Theories range from drugs to breeding problems, training methods, and even track surfaces. But worse, without a comprehensive database, we don’t know if the number of catastrophic injuries is increasing and if this might be due to a general decline in the physical soundness of the breed.

But the real scandal in thoroughbred racing is that the people controlling the game don’t want to know.

These people are the thoroughbred owners and breeders. Today, the big money in horse racing is in the breeding shed, not at the track. Thoroughbred racing is now the feeder system for a multibillion-dollar breeding industry. Owners and breeders are looking for a colt to win a few big races and then retire to stud, where the top horses can earn upwards of $100,000 per mare. Fusaichi Pegasus, the winner of the Kentucky Derby in 2000, will service about 200 mares this year, with total earnings around $25 million.

The babies are big money too. Earlier this year, a 2-year-old colt was sold for a record $16 million. But studies based on comprehensive national data might call into question today’s breeding techniques.

The owners and breeders are not about to let that happen. They have the game wired from top to bottom, effectively controlling racetracks, racing organizations, equine research centers, lobbying groups and publications. No one dares speak out. Talking about thoroughbred breakdowns is “a no-win situation for us,” one top racing official told me, before refusing to speak further on the subject. The American Association of Equine Practitioners, which claims a “meticulous concern for the health and welfare of the horse,” stopped returning my e-mail messages on the subject. Ditto a half-dozen other official “horse-friendly” organizations.

“There is much uncertainty about why so many racehorses end up dead on American tracks every year,” Mr. Nack wrote in 1993, “but the figures are appalling and unacceptable by any humane standard.” Thirteen years later, nothing has changed.

But Governor Pataki has an opportunity to transform the fate of the thoroughbred with the stroke of a pen. The New York racing franchise at Saratoga, Aqueduct and Belmont is one of the biggest treasure troves in racing history. Bidders include some of the most prominent names in racing and breeding: Churchill Downs; Magna Entertainment; Stephen Swindal, George Steinbrenner’s son-in-law; and many others. The governor should direct his panel to mandate that the winning bidder for the New York franchise provide financing for an independent comprehensive national database on thoroughbred breakdowns.

With New York as a sponsor, the rest of the racing world would support a national database. Reliable data will help settle troubling questions about thoroughbred breakdowns.

Owners and breeders are decent people, but it’s tough to buck a multibillion-dollar industry. By mandating a national database as part of the new racing franchise, Albany can help provide what all horse lovers truly want: more protection for the wondrous creatures that afford us so much pleasure and joy.

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