Catastrophic racetrack breakdowns: where do we go from here?

The Retired Racehorse Project’s annual Thoroughbred Makeover, which is taking place at Kentucky Horse Park from today until Saturday, is one of the major events supported by the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, an organisation that “clearly demonstrates that the industry has made huge strides in caring for our equine athletes once their racing careers are over”

During the December-March period of the Santa Anita Winter/Spring meet, as we all know, there was a serious number of catastrophic Thoroughbred breakdowns, both in training and during races.

There was an unprecedented amount of mainstream media coverage and social media engagement, the likes of which the racing industry had never seen before. This resulted in more negative media exposure for horse racing to the general public than one could have ever imagined just a few years ago. 

A number of animal rights organizations actually called for a complete ban on Thoroughbred racing. 

This issue is real, here to stay and the industry has to do something it is not very good at: develop a serious industry-wide program, and identify and undertake some critical initiatives with the goal of decreasing the number of breakdowns per thousand starters. That figure was 1.68 in 2018, according to the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury database.

‘You can’t spin your way out of a tight spot’

In response to the media and consumer uproar, the Jockey Club at its August Saratoga 2019 Round Table featured a presentation from David Fuscus, President and CEO of crisis management firm Xenophon Strategies, who framed the challenge at hand and how to approach it. He said:

“Crisis communications is about how you communicate your actions. In today’s world, you can’t spin your way out of a tight spot. Many have tried and many have failed. And the first rule of crisis management is to end it. Take the actions necessary to correct the situation, and then communicate it to the public. But, all too often, corporations, individuals and industries don’t end it. They sustain enormous damage because they break one of these four fundamentals:

  • Engagement. Full engagement means the ability to shape the story, having the ability to define rather than be defined.
  • Transparency. In a situation where something is wrong, transparency gives you the public credibility to be able to shape your own story. And without it, you can’t.
  • Responsibility. Responsibility means admitting if you did something wrong … or acknowledging that something needs fixing. Again, the reason you need this is for credibility.
  • And finally, the most important thing is meaningful actions. Everything comes down to meaningful actions in crisis management. It’s what are you going to do to solve the problem, how are you going to do it, and do people believe in your ability to take these actions.”


You can find the complete text of this excellent presentation here. I strongly recommend that anyone interested in the future of Thoroughbred racing takes the time to read this and then make a serious effort to do something about it. All industry participants have a stake in this and need to get engaged.

As every racetrack across the U.S. quickly found out, concerns about breakdowns and the use of the whip by jockeys have become national issues and have to be dealt with by our industry on both a local track and national basis. 

As an example, just last week, singer Taylor Swift announced she was cancelling her performance at next month’s Melbourne Cup. Victoria Racing Club had announced Swift as its headline act last month, but she was then criticized by animal rights groups, who accused her of “endorsing animal abuse” due to the race’s record of six equine deaths since 2013. The threat is real and it is happening everywhere.

As I have written previously, the New York Racing Association went through a catastrophic breakdown similar to Santa Anita 2019 from December 2011 to late March 2012. Aqueduct racetrack experienced 21 racing fatalities during this period, which was around twice the number for each of the two previous years there. 

Curiously, Aqueduct did not experience any breakdowns during training hours, whereas Santa Anita had significant training fatalities.  While there was very little media coverage of the breakdowns at the time, it did concern the NY State Racing and Wagering Board and, as a result, Governor Andrew Cuomo convened a task force in April 2012. Although I do not believe it was the Governor’s intent, it is the single best thing he has done for racing since he has been in office.

The team - the New York Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety - comprised these members:

  • Dr Scott Palmer VWD, an internationally known equine surgeon and hospital director of the New Jersey Equine Clinic. He was the chairman.
  • Dr Mary Scollay-Ward DVM, former Equine Medical Director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and a highly regarded equine veterinary practitioner.
  • Alan M Foreman, a well-known equine and racing law expert. In addition to his private practice, Foreman is Chairman and CEO of the THA (Thoroughbred Horsemens’ Association), founding director of the NTRA (National Thoroughbred Racing Association) and Vice Chair of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium.
  • Jerry Bailey, a Hall of Fame jockey and a seven-time Eclipse Award winner. He is an NBC and ESPN television analyst.

In addition, Mick Peterson, a renowned racetrack racing surface expert was retained by NYRA to do extensive racetrack analysis when he was operating the University of Maine racing surface testing lab. Glen Kozak, NYRA Facilities and Racing Surfaces manager, the NYRA racing office, veterinarians, stewards and senior management all participated in this important initiative at the request of the task force.

Their work produced what I believe to be the most comprehensive document that has ever been produced on all aspects of equine fatalities, including racing surfaces, medications, veterinary and racing office practices, purses and the correlation to claiming prices, and many other elements relating to equine and jockey safety and injury issues. 

Anyone working in the industry should read the relevant portions of the report relating to their job. 

‘The industry didn’t embrace the report’

I had left NYRA in May 2012, four months before the report was published, and for a number of reasons the report never received the proper attention from the racing industry. I have no explanation for this. Task force member and a major racing industry participant Alan Foreman was disappointed with the lack of attention and, more importantly, the policy changes that it should have stimulated. 

John Cherwa, who writes an excellent newsletter on thoroughbred racing for the LA Times, quoted Foreman: “One of the things that came out of the reforms was that a lot of work can be done to improve safety … The report was under-appreciated in the industry. In hindsight, the industry didn’t embrace it.”

While this report was published over seven years ago, the work was comprehensive and provides background information and recommends policies and practices that should be considered by every racing association and state regulator involved in racing.  

Once again, here is a link to the report and the exhibits.  

The Stronach Group (TSG) was clearly concerned with the ongoing equine fatalities at Santa Anita. In response, Belinda Stronach, the TSG Chairman and President, issued this comprehensive letter, detailing an unprecedented number of integrity and safety measures. 

There was some criticism of the letter, suggesting that whip and Lasix changes proposed had nothing to do with the Santa Anita breakdowns. While that may be factually correct, the industry across America has come under severe criticism from the public due to concerns about the use of the whip and medications. In following the developments during this time at Santa Anita, it was clear that there were serious concerns by the media, mainstream animal rights groups and private individuals regarding the use of the whip and medication policies. 

Complete reviews needed

One thing clearly needed is for every organization to undertake a complete review of all racing, training and veterinary procedures. 

For example, at NYRA the task force discovered that the chief vet reported to the VP, Director of Racing. While this may appear to make sense from a communication perspective, it did not make sense for the Director of Racing who was trying to maximize field size, to manage someone whose responsibility was to manage the health and condition of the horse for the benefit of the owner, the bettor and, most importantly, the horse. 

The reporting responsibility for the vets was moved from the racing office to the stewards.

Here is another example where tradition and a profit motive may have taken priority over racetrack safety. On March 5, racing at Santa Anita was closed for 23 days due to the spike in equine fatalities. Eventually, after a complete review of the racing surface and the implementation of Ms Stronach’s new policies, racing resumed on Friday, March 29, through Sunday, March 31. 

There were no breakdowns on the first two of those days, but unfortunately things changed on March 31. 

On the nine-race card, there were four 6½-furlong contests on the ‘down-the-hill’ turf course. This is a unique track configuration with a fairly steep hill with two mild turns that then turns onto to the flat and crosses the dirt course briefly before finishing the last two furlongs on the turf course again. In the San Simeon Stakes, the Peter Miller-trained Arms Runner broke down while crossing the dirt course to get back on the turf course.

It might be asked in hindsight why four 6½-furlong turf races were scheduled on one card. I do not know the answer, but this is a very popular distance at Santa Anita, resulting in large fields that generate strong handle. However, comparing the breakdown history for the down-the-hill course compared to the Santa Anita all-race average and the industry average of breakdowns rates per thousand runners, Santa Anita’s all-race average runs higher than the industry average and the down-the hill course has the highest incidence of any Santa Anita distance or surface in this period except for 2016.

It is important to note that, since March 31, there have been no 6½-furlong down-the-hill turf races, and, until they can reduce the breakdown rate on that course, I would hope there will be no further races on that course.

If you think the media has quieted down over the last few months, in part due to a very successful and safe Del Mar summer meet, please know that is not the case. 

On September 28, the second day of the Fall Santa Anita meet, Emtech, trained by Steve Knapp and ridden by Mario Guttierrez, broke down in the eighth race and was euthanized on the track. The incident received substantial print and electronic media coverage on both a regional and national level. On the other side of the country, Belmont Park in New York has had an unusual number of equine fatalities in the first three weeks of the fall meet. Four horses have died while racing and three more had fatal breakdowns in training. Fortunately, there have been no equine racing fatalities since September 22, which represents six days of racing.

This issue is not going away until the industry undertakes appropriate broad-based safety initiatives that result in real reductions in equine fatalities. 

As is the case with solving the industry’s medication issues, we have a state-by-state regulatory structure that is incapable of solving important national Thoroughbred racing and breeding challenges. However, there is one shining example that we might look to as a model to apply to the equine fatality problem across the nation. 

On February 9, 2012, a broad-based group of industry stakeholders announced the establishment of the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA), an organization designed to serve as both the accrediting body for aftercare facilities that care for Thoroughbreds following the conclusion of their racing careers and a fund-raising body to support these approved facilities. 

I personally believe that the TAA is the most important industry development of the last decade. This organization clearly demonstrates that the industry has made huge strides in caring for our equine athletes once their racing careers are over.

The good news is that, based on the TAA experience, there are several initiatives that provide a road map on how the industry might unite to develop a national plan to reduce equine fatalities permanently.

1 - New York Task Force

As I have noted above, any racing industry that has an interest in reducing equine fatalities has to read the New York Task Force report on Racehorse Health and Safety.

2 - Mid-Atlantic plan

Read the Mid-Atlantic Strategic Plan to Reduce Equine Fatalities

Two members of the New York Task Force, Chairman Dr Scott Palmer and Alan Foreman, along with regional veterinarians Dr Kathy Anderson and Dr Reynolds Cowles, drafted this plan and 29 organizations - representing the region’s racetrack operators, horsemen’s organizations, breeders’ organizations, racing commissions and regulatory and racetrack veterinarians - took part in the preparation of the plan. 

Foreman, who initially proposed the concept of a regional strategic plan stated, “We have got to do better. The fatality rate is still too high. We have to continue to learn from our experiences and make the changes and adopt reforms that we know will make things better for our horses and our industry.” One goal should be to expand the regional plans, such as those of New York and the Mid-Atlantic, to a national plan with some real performance targets.

3 - Equine Injury Database

Seek complete participation of all racetracks in the Equine Injury Database (EID) and make complete transparency of statistics mandatory. 

The EID is the Thoroughbred industry’s first national database of racing injuries, launched by the Jockey Club in July 2008. It is remarkable to me that, before 2008, there was no person or entity whose responsibility it was to look at equine fatalities and ask this question … “Is the industry as a whole and the individual racetracks concerned about managing the equine fatalities at the respective tracks.”

Well, in my mind, if you aren’t even looking at and aggregating the numbers of horses dying on the tracks, then the industry clearly was not truly interested in the welfare and safety of the horses.

Below are the breakdowns per 1,000 starters representing all the tracks that report their fatalities to the Jockey Club. 

There has been some progress from 2009 to 2018. I would say that this is modest at best when you consider that, after NYRA instituted its new safety and integrity protocols starting in late 2012, there have been five instances when NYRA tracks had an annual breakdown rate of under 1.00 per thousand starters. Belmont was under 1.00 for three different years, and Saratoga for two. That tells me that a good target for the national average to shoot for might be for all tracks to average under 1.00.

In order to do this, the Jockey Club and the racetracks have to agree that the tracks are required to report their equine injury rates (for both training and racing) and that the Jockey Club has to make public the injury rates for all participating tracks. 

Currently, in order for the Jockey Club to get participation in the EID program, racetracks will provide the data to the Jockey Club on the condition that it will not publish it. 

In an era when we are trying to increase transparency and reduce breakdowns, the Jockey Club cannot provide the data to the public only for certain tracks. Go look at the EID on the Jockey Club website, and you will be shocked to see the number of tracks that are hiding their data from the public. 

For me, there is only one logical explanation for this. If a track does not want to make its breakdowns public, that tells me it is not prepared to do anything substantive about its breakdown rates. This policy cannot be tolerated in this current hostile media environment.

4 - NTRA - Safety and Integrity Alliance

This accredits over 20 of the larger U.S. tracks on an annual basis. As there is more development of safety and integrity initiatives from individual racing associations, such as NYRA or regional groups like the Mid-Atlantic, I would hope there is a sharing of policies, protocols, etc. that can help advance best practices in as many areas as possible.

In closing, it would be good if any industry participant or informed reader could provide any comments or suggestions in this area that could further advance industry participation and insight.


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