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How To Answer Questions About the Industry / Monday, June 26, 2023

By: Joe Bianca

It’s been a tumultuous spring for horse racing, with fatal breakdowns at Churchill Downs largely overshadowing an otherwise fascinating Triple Crown season. While the situation hasn’t reached the fever-pitch crisis level it was at in 2019 at Santa Anita, racing is once again under scrutiny, and stakeholders and advocates of the game are being asked tough—but fair—questions. People who remain passionate about this game want to respond in the right way. Here is a brief guide for approaching and answering criticism about the sport we love.

Why are horses dying at such an alarming rate at Churchill Downs?

  • As unsatisfying as it may be, there’s no single, clear-cut answer. The uncomfortable truth is that accidents do happen and injuries sometimes come in clusters without obvious explanation.
  • But racing is in a better place than ever regarding horse safety because of how proactive the sport has become. Even if there was no way to prove the track at Churchill definitively was the problem, we took no chances, and the decision-makers at Churchill moved Kentucky’s racing product to Ellis Park.
  • The same thing happened earlier this year when Laurel Park in Maryland had issues with horse safety—racing was swiftly suspended and moved to Pimlico.
  • No appetite exists for just “racing through it” when these situations arise.
  • Precautions are taken, investigations are launched, and racing is moved and does not return to the problem site until the situation has vastly improved.

How safe is horse racing really for the animals?

  • Short answer: Safer than it’s ever been, and getting safer year over year. In 2009, The Jockey Club launched the Equine Injury Database, a massive data-gathering project to record and analyze, for the first time, the national fatal breakdown rate in Thoroughbred racing.
  • The data is accessible to all on TJC’s website. The EID recorded two fatal breakdowns per 1,000 starts in its first year. That number has been cut nearly in half since, and in 2022, set a new low mark at 1.25 per 1,000 starts.
  • The breakdown rate has decreased in four straight years and eight out of the last 10 years.
  • The real-world impact equates to hundreds fewer horses dying on track last year than when the study began in 2009. Work still needs to be done, but the ball is undeniably moving in the right direction.
  • The current breakdown rate equates to 99.88% of starts in North American Thoroughbred races being completed without a fatality.

How big of a problem are drugs in racing?

  • The era of permissive drug use in racing is over, thanks in large part to the passage of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, which unifies the sport’s drug policy under one umbrella and gets rid of the patchwork regulatory system that has hampered enforcement of anti-doping rules in the past.
  • Clenbuterol, a bronchodilator long suspected to be a performance enhancer, has been outlawed by HISA in both racing and sales.
  • HISA is also drastically stepping up surveillance and investigative efforts, which are key to stopping trainers who try to “take an edge.”

What can be done to better keep horses safe?

  • A major factor in preventing serious injuries is early diagnostics, followed by early intervention, and racing is at the precipice of a technological revolution in both.
  • An exciting and growing technology called StrideSAFE has recently been introduced to racing, which has the potential to drastically reduce fatal breakdowns by detecting minute changes in a horse’s stride before they suffer a catastrophic injury. A small biometric sensor is placed in each horse’s saddle, and it has been proven to detect problems in a horse’s stride, sometimes weeks before a catastrophic event.
  • Racing and veterinary officials can use this technology and data to pull horses out of training and evaluate/treat them for underlying issues before returning them to the racetrack.
  • Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, a non-profit charitable organization that funds groundbreaking veterinary research at universities throughout North America and beyond, has led the way on addressing issues of horse health across all breeds. Support for their work is vital to continuing to improve the safety of our sport.

Success Stories

  • The situation in Southern California racing is a shining example of the improvement racing is making on safety and a guide for how other tracks/circuits can aggressively address negative breakdown trends. Less than four years ago, racing at Santa Anita was in the national news nearly daily because of the devastating spate of 30 breakdowns it experienced in a single meet. Fast forward to last year—in 2022, zero racing fatalities were recorded on the Santa Anita main track for the entire year.
  • Last summer, Del Mar completed its summer meet with zero racing fatalities. For four straight years, the track has had one of the lowest fatal injury rates in the US.. This was accomplished through thorough racetrack maintenance, increased veterinary attention to every horse on the grounds, an aggressive veterinary intervention policy for horses with issues, and crackdowns on pain-blocking medications. It’s a remarkable turnaround, but it shows what’s possible in our new era of racing. It cements horse safety at the top of the priority list and uses every tool to keep our athletes out of harm’s way.