An atmosphere of edgy grimness pervaded Aqueduct last Saturday. The weight of the week’s bad news lay heavy; nearly every conversation included references to the cancellation of Luck in the aftermath of a third horse death or to the growing list of equine mortality at the track over the last few months. Races were watched less to see which horse crossed the wire first than to see whether they all finished.
And they didn’t. In the seventh race, Deferred Risk became the 18th fatality of the inner track meet when she broke down in the stretch in her first career start; she was euthanized on the track. A race earlier, Red Bendel and Purplegreenandgold were vanned off, Red Bendel after winning the race; they were later reported to be uninjured.
Those involved in the investigation called for by Governor Cuomo last week have their work cut out for them. If determining the cause of equine injury were easy, someone would have figured it out long ago. Still, questions need to be asked, and we can hope that those questions can yield answers that will lead to positive change about this most troubling element of racing.
As injuries continued to mount on Sunday, on Twitter cries of gratitude rang out for the end of this year’s inner track meet, clearly seen by many as a major factor in the breakdowns. It would be nice if the answer were that easy, but the disparity between the number of breakdowns in the morning (reportedly none) and in the afternoon would suggest that the problem lies not (or at least not entirely) with the track surface. Nor have trainers or jockeys complained about an unsafe surface.
If I could submit a wish-list of questions that could be answered, I’d wonder:
- How many of the horses involved in fatal accidents had recently been claimed? How many were making their first start off a claim, or were claimed in the race in which they broke down?
- What veterinary care had the horses been under in the weeks preceding the breakdown?
- In light of the declining foal crop over the last few years, why has the number of races not declined commensurately?
- Claims came fast and furious over the last few months; is it harder for trainers to detect lameness or injury in horses with which they’re not familiar, or is lameness evident regardless of one’s familiarity with the animal?
Not long ago, the radio program This American Life discovered that significant parts of a story it aired in January, on Apple factories in China, had been fabricated. Last week, the program devoted its entire show to a post-mortem of how that story came to be on the air. It revealed in minute detail its fact-checking process; it unstintingly examined how the fraud came to be discovered; it interviewed the writer who had falsified the work. The show is a marvel of transparency, of responsibility, and of accountability. It’s compelling radio and compelling journalism, and it’s well worth your time.
As I listened, I wondered what it would be like if such conversations could happen every time a horse breaks down. Suppose trainers and owners had to talk to vets and racing officials when one of their horses was injured on the track or in training? What kinds of information and patterns might, I wonder, be discovered? Would such conversations contribute to a reduction in breakdowns? Maybe these conversations already happen and if they do, what would be the benefits and disadvantages of making them public?
With virtually every day bringing yet another piece of dismaying news – on Monday, Jerry Bossert in the Daily News reported on a proposed protest at Aqueduct to call for racing there to shut down – perhaps we can hope that the winter’s ghastly occurrences can yield not only information about what happened this winter, but an improvement in how breakdowns are handled as well.
The last graded stakes race of the inner track meet was, perhaps appropriately, the Excelsior. “Excelsior,” the motto of the State of New York, means “still higher” or “ever upward,” depending on the translation from the Latin. This American Life met a journalistic and public relations disaster head-on, re-asserting its credibility and elevating its stature. As the horses today move to the main track at Aqueduct, I’ll think about the example that public radio set, and hope that racing, too, can move “ever upward” as it deals with its own series of misfortunes.