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    2019 got off to an unusually bad start at historic Santa Anita Park in California, with 10 horses suffering catastrophic injuries in January. That’s about the time the mainstream media picked up the story, and, over the course of the year, horse deaths became the prevailing national racing story, including after Mongolian Groom took a bad step in the Breeders’ Cup Classic Nov. 3.

    Last month, a coalition of leadership representing all of the major tracks formed to address safety issues regarding medications, track surfaces and whip use. During a press conference at Keeneland, Churchill Downs president Kevin Flanery said, “These reforms are vitally important for our industry.” 

    For many people outside the industry, the future of the sport has become a binary proposition: reform or abolish. I’m all for the former, but it helps to know the facts.

     

    What do the numbers say? Statistics show that horse racing is safer than ever. In 2018, 1.68 Thoroughbreds per 1,000 starters were fatally injured on North American racetracks, according to an injury database maintained by the Jockey Club. The number has declined since 2009. As for Santa Anita, the breakdowns have exceeded the national average lately, ranging from 2.94 per 1,000 in 2011 to 2.04 in 2018. If anything is to be expected at Santa Anita, it’s regression to the mean.

     

    Why do horses break down? Horses are fragile, with tiny ankles supporting the thousand-pound beasts. According to a recent article written by former jockey and current NBC racing analyst Donna Barton Brothers, fracture is the “natural mechanism by which most horses’ lives terminate.” If a horse is in terrible pain or a bone is protruding, euthanasia is usually a quick decision. A specialized splint can stabilize a limb injury temporarily, allowing a horse to bear weight long enough to be medically evaluated, and some less severe limb injuries do respond well to surgery. The real issue is that horses are poor patients because you can’t immobilize them like you can a human. Horses spend the majority of their lives standing, and it’s unnatural and uncomfortable for them when they can’t bear weight. An injury also causes them to bear weight unevenly, which can lead to the often-fatal hoof disease laminitis.

    Dr. Charles McCauley, director of veterinary clinical services at Louisiana State University, specializes in equine surgery and racing injuries and says, “Are the risks of racing excessive? I don’t see it that way. I had a horse suffer a catastrophic fracture in a two-acre pasture.”

     

    Are track surfaces to blame? In general, dirt surfaces are more dangerous than turf or synthetic. In 2007, the California Horse Racing Board issued a mandate that all major tracks in the state abandon dirt racing and convert to synthetic surfaces. The change happened (at an estimated total cost of $40 million), but by 2015 Santa Anita and Del Mar — the state’s two largest and best-known tracks — had already converted back to dirt, citing maintenance problems and inconsistencies with the synthetic surfaces, even though the number of catastrophic injuries at both tracks had declined. Keeneland, too, converted to a synthetic track in 2006 before reverting to dirt in 2014. This was announced after a banner year of safety in 2013, when the track had just a single catastrophic breakdown on its synthetic surface.

    Focusing on the science of engineering safer and more consistent dirt surfaces is a trend the industry seems to be embracing in the aftermath of Santa Anita 2019. In a recent Blood-Horse article, Mick Peterson, a track-surface expert, University of Kentucky ag equine professor and the executive director of the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory, alluded to the potential of developing a “biomechanically appropriate synthetic” that would combine the best attributes of conventional dirt and synthetic racing surfaces. 

     

    Is horse racing cruel? Once breakdowns captured the attention of the general public, they predictably became political fodder. California Gov. Gavin Newsom mentioned the “incredible abuses” suffered by racehorses and the willingness of the sport “to literally spit these animals out and take their lives.” In general, those making such claims have spent little time on the backside of a racetrack.

    The reality is, the average racehorse has it pretty darn good. They have a personal groom, get regular massages. They receive chiropractic treatment. They are sheltered, well-fed, exercised, cared for when they are ill. Tending to a Thoroughbred athlete is a seven-day lifestyle that revolves around keeping the animal healthy and happy.

    Of course, it’s hard to come to grips with a horse dying on the track. Watching a befallen majestic creature is a profoundly emotional experience, and it’s unequivocally the worst part of the sport. Trainer Ian Wilkes echoes these sentiments in the thoughtful way most insiders do when asked to contemplate the ever-present threat of death. “Things are gonna happen,” Wilkes says, “but the thing I’ve always said about this game is that we never get used to it. The day I’m used to it, I’m done. That would mean I’ve lost feeling for the animal, and we feel for these animals in everything we do.”

     

    This originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of Louisville MagazineRead 2019 from A to Z.

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    Cover photo: Pexels.com

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