Is the racing industry truly at a tipping point?

Many of the public do not want to be “educated” about the value of the whip. They want to see jockeys not whipping their horses

Anyone remotely involved in Thoroughbred racing would agree that it has been a challenging year in the U.S.

The most significant challenge was the number of horses breaking down during the races and in training for the winter and spring Santa Anita meeting. While the Stronach Group, working with the Thoroughbred Owners of California (TOC) and the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) initiated a number of racing and safety initiatives, the breakdowns continued through the Del Mar summer and fall meets and into the Santa Anita fall meet. 

Unfortunately, this culminated with a breakdown in the last race of the two-day Breeders’ Cup, the Longines Classic. 

Questions beyond the breakdowns have also arisen regarding excessive the use of the whip by jockeys throughout races. Medication issues have continued to be an issue, highlighted by an allegation of an unreported drug positive by Justify when he won the Santa Anita Derby before going on to win the 2018 Triple Crown for Bob Baffert. 

The CHRB provided explanations for all of their decisions, but it left many wondering why these issues came to light 18 months after that runnng of the Santa Anita Derby.

No national voice

One of the most intelligent and diligent journalists covering New York Thoroughbred racing and New York politics is lawyer, horse owner, breeder and occasional bettor Tom Noonan. On June 1, he wrote this article - Racing is at a tipping point. Here are a few excerpts:

There are not many certainties in politics, and politicians have been known, to put it mildly, to change their positions. But, when an elected official takes a stand on an issue that is emotionally charged, they are less likely to back down and will want to see their concerns addressed.

There is no national voice to counter the assault on the sport’s integrity and value. There are many respected figures in racing, and there are many organizations. Unfortunately, no individual can speak for the industry, and the national organizations are not only useless, but often downright embarrassing.

Noonan goes on to raise a very important issue:

The most publicized reforms have to do with phasing out race-day Lasix and the use of the whip. While neither may have caused any of the catastrophic injuries, anyone who has spoken with a non-racing fan realizes that these are important perception issues. And, to be clear, the discussion has gone beyond attracting new fans to the sport. We need to prevent those non-fans from advocating the abolition of all racing …

There is a tipping point at which the impetus to abolish racing becomes an irreversible inevitability. We are quickly approaching that point. Maintaining a snail’s pace of progress is no longer going to be sufficient to keep racing going. The time for urgency is now, and not when it is too late.

It is important that racing industry participants understand and fully appreciate that the rise of well-financed and politically active animal rights groups, the exponential growth of social media activity and the scrutiny of all forms of mainstream and special media outlets have forever changed how the general public perceives the sport of Thoroughbred racing. 

It is brilliant that the New York Racing Association, the Jockey Club and Fox Sports will have televised over 500 hours from Belmont Park and Saratoga in 2019 - and that number will grow to almost 800 in 2020. This is a great way to introduce new fans and bettors to the sport. However, if we do not make serious efforts to reduce breakdowns, reduce the negative exposure of horses being excessively whipped and medications permeating the coverage of our races, then a very strong and powerful asset for our industry will also be a tool for racing’s detractors to attack us.

While the circumstances are not exactly the same, I do think that it is worth briefly reviewing the circumstances behind the very recent demise of the Ringling Brothers Circus and the Florida state legislation making greyhound racing illegal. 

Dramatic drop

For years elephants had been in the spotlight at the circus and their dance routines were very popular. However, due to aggressive and mounting criticism from animal rights groups, the Ringling Brothers Circus phased out the elephant acts entirely. They had an immediate and dramatic drop in their business. The last performance of the Ringling Brothers Circus was in May 2017.

Greyhound racing suffered a similar fate due to aggressive criticism from animal rights activists. 

Florida was unquestionably the hub of greyhound racing. Yet, in December 2018, a statewide referendum on the future of the sport in Florida was held and almost 70 percent of voters passed a law to outlaw it, effective in 2020. 

Without question, animal rights activists played a substantial role in the strong turnout to eliminate dog racing in the state of Florida.

I would like to turn briefly to two critical areas in Thoroughbred racing that are getting a lot of focus, but, in my view, are not being addressed  rapidly enough:

  1. The current wide-ranging rules regarding the use of the jockey’s crop. 

  2. There are some very good and sincere efforts to reduce breakdowns but we are not doing enough. 

Below are the statistics developed by the Jockey Club for the Equine Injury Database, which was started only in 2008. It is a good start, but the industry is nowhere near where we need it to be. 

This chart shows that, in 2009, the reporting tracks had a combined breakdown rate of two horses per 1,000 starters in Thoroughbred races. Last year, breakdowns had dropped to 1.68 horses per 1,000 starters or a reduction of 16 percent over the ten years. That clearly demonstrates to me that our industry would appear to be relatively content with the current breakdown rate, which in my view is completely unacceptable.

Let’s turn to the issue of the jockey’s riding crop. In the last two years, there has been much development and some incremental progress in both the design and use of the riding crop. Perhaps the best way to summarize many of the disparate opinions is by reading a new feature developed by Thoroughbred Daily News (TDN). Over this past weekend, TDN published the first in a new feature entitled The TDN Topic. It was devoted entirely to this issue: Should the crop be banned?

In addition, there are many other sources to read about the new proposed proposed CHRB rule. New Jersey just published some new rules that are now in the public hearing stage and many other states are working on this. However, I would suggest that the time is late and that we have missed the opportunity to fine-tune and make subtle or significant changes on how the jockey is allowed to use the whip.

To introduce my opinion on this topic, I would like to have you read the opinion of Joe Gorajec, many-time contributor to this site and for 25 years the executive director of the Indiana Horse Racing Commission (1990-2015). Gorajec writes an excellent column, Inside Racing Regs, on These quotes are from his column on April 23.

Many in the racing industry reject a correlation between whipping and horses breaking down. These people are missing the point. The media coverage of Santa Anita has shown some of the sport’s practices to be offensive to the public at large. Once the racing industry draws attention to itself, as it has with the horse deaths at Santa Anita, all of its warts become exposed for the nation to see.

Whipping is a wart. It needs to be eliminated.

My advocacy for racing without whipping is a plea, not a criticism.

I don’t mean to suggest that there is an absolute cause and effect between whipping and the decline of the sport of horse racing. I do believe, however, that the perceived brutality of whipping a horse is emblematic of a sport that has lost touch with the sensitivities of the American public at large, which has fueled its subsequent decline.

In sum, Gorajec writes that he supports The Stronach Group’s proposal limiting the whip in American horse racing for safety and control purposes. I support a similar and more detailed version of the Stronach position, which is this August 11, 2019, modification to a Jockey Club Thoroughbred Safety Committee recommendation.

I have owned horses and have been betting on horses since the early 1980s. As an example as to how one can get inured to the use of the whip, I have literally watched thousands of races and I can count on one hand the number of times that I can actually recall any manner in which the jockey was using the whip. 

I was struck in reading a report of the CHRB meeting where the board and the public were discussing the many sides of the discussion. The Blood-Horse reported that a California jockey, who I know to be an intelligent fellow, was trying to explain to the group that the solution was that the public has to be educated about the use of the riding crop in the sport. 

No, the point is that many of the public do not want to be “educated” about the value of the whip. They want to see jockeys not whipping their horses. If whipping is part of the sport, then many current and future want no part of horse racing.

Important tool

Turning to breakdowns, I think that the Equine Industry Database could be an important tool to measure the progress that the industry is making in reducing breakdowns. However, there is one major flaw in the reporting. 

From the outset in 2008, participating tracks could either agree to allow the Jockey Club to make the breakdown data public or simply keep the data confidential and use it only in the summary data. Candidly, if a track does not want its breakdown rate made public, it would indicate that the track does not want the data public because it is not confident it will be making improvements in the breakdown rate.

Given what the industry experienced during the Santa Anita issues, there is no question that every track in the country was under close scrutiny for any breakdowns.

Unfortunately, a good reporter can work around some of these impediments. On March 27, ,a little more than a week out from the Kentucky Derby, the Louisville Courier Journal ran a front-page story with this headline: Churchill Downs is one of the deadliest racetracks in America. This enterprising journalist had gotten the Churchill breakdown numbers from the Kentucky Racing Commission. 

Non-reporting tracks

However, Churchill is not alone in not allowing the Jockey Club to publish its breakdown numbers. Some of the other non-reporting tracks beyond the Churchill Downs tracks include Canterbury Park, Emerald Downs, Louisiana Downs, Oaklawn, Parx Racing, all the Penn National tracks and Tampa Bay Downs.

Right in the middle of some of the darkest days of the Santa Anita breakdowns, I wrote this article on an experience that NYRA had in 2012 from December-March that was very similar to the number of breakdowns at Santa Anita. 

As was the case in California, the Governor, Andrew Cuomo, got involved. He insisted that NYRA produce a task force to study and correct the problem. 

This report was researched and written long after I had left NYRA, but it is the most comprehensive review of all racing activities as it relates to any aspect of understanding a potential breakdown situation. 

One of the key participants on that investigative panel was Alan Foreman, President and CEO of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. Under Foreman’s direction, with assistance from Dr Scott Palmer, Equine Medical Director in New York, a large number of East Coast tracks collaborated to create the Mid-Atlantic Strategic Plan to reduce Equine Fatalities.      

The results for the NYRA tracks have been impressive, but perhaps most importantly, the breakdown numbers speak for themselves. In 2018, the average number of breakdowns across all reporting tracks is 1.68 per 1,000. The NYRA tracks’ statistics for 2018 are:

Aqueduct    1.57
Belmont    0.98
Saratoga    0.97

The Equine Injury Database is an important program developed and operated by the Jockey Club. It is essential that all tracks take their reporting responsibilities seriously and work towards reducing their individual breakdown numbers.

Finally, some very good news from California and for the entire racing industry.

The fact is that over 80 percent of Thoroughbred breakdowns on the track are found to have had varying levels of pre-existing conditions. Unfortunately, there is no technology that exists today to test a horse with the hope of finding that pre-existing condition. Last March, The Stronach Group announced it was spending $500,000 in partnership with the Dolly Green Research Foundation and the University of California-Davis to purchase a machine that would do that job and install it at Santa Anita. 

The new technological innovation is called the Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scan machine. This is being delivered and assembled in time for the December 26 opening of the Santa Anita meeting. 

Huge breakthrough?

Mathieu Spriet, the lead researcher at U-C Davis, said, “The goal of the project is to validate a new Positron Emission Tomography scanner to be able to image the fetlock of the Thoroughbred racehorse using standard sedation. This scanner will provide a three-dimensional bone scan, which will allow the detection of early changes that precede fetlock breakdowns not currently amenable to other diagnostic imaging techniques.”

This could be a huge breakthrough for the industry by supplying proper pre-race examinations that might prevent a horse from running when it could be seriously at risk.

In January, a second U-Davis project will currently be delivered and installed. It is a Standing Magnetic Resonance Imaging, another example of cutting-edge diagnostic technology to assist with animal welfare. 

The lead researcher, Sue Stover, also from U-C Davis, explained, “Our goal is to prevent proximal sesamoid bone fractures, and thus the largest cause of fatalities, by understanding how horses’ training and racing programs and race surfaces promote, or protect horses from, the development of this fracture. In addition to improved understanding, novel training and racing programs and surface recommendations will be designed for injury prevention.”

Both of these projects received substantial research grants from the Grayson-Jockey Club Foundation. In 2019, the Foundation will contribute a total of $1,338,858 for 20 various new and ongoing projects.

It is a challenging time for the industry, and it is important that we look to the future and not conduct our business as we have in the past years.

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