A Hope for Racing to Move “Ever Upward”

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.

8 thoughts on “A Hope for Racing to Move “Ever Upward”

  1. Teresa,
    Thank you for your article. As a small time owner and backyard breeder and long time fan who wants more than anything to get back in this sport or near it everyday I have read and listened to many opinions on break downs. There are, as in the winning of a race so many variables it is hard to point to any one thing. In my opinion however, for what little it is probably worth; I think the main contributors are in this order: 1. Medication. 2. Training practices.
    I remember reading winners circle on the back page of TBH some years ago, entitled, If I were a trainer. I believe it was by Victor Zast?
    Quite an enlightening piece of writting there!
    Sometimes break downs will happen. I think the average is about once per every one thousand starts. I think we all could do something to make that even less.
    Have a great day.
    Jarrod

  2. Excellent post, as always. Your list of questions covers all the important issues that need to be addressed in order to assure the public that everything possible is being done to protect the equine athlete.

    “Ever Upward” is indeed a good motto for this endeavor.

  3. Great post Teresa. This issue is not going to go away even if some changes are made and/or the rate of breakdowns returns to a “normal” level. I’ve seen it happen many times as a spectator and also a few times as someone involved in one way or another with the horse who broke down. It is truly gruesome and terrible and it will continue to happen no matter what rules are in place. Racing is dangerous for both animal and human. Sound horses do break down and there is no way to stop it from happening other than banning racing.

    I and many others can live with this fact and still love and appreciate the sport but I’m really not sure society, even one that glorifies violence in movies, music, etc., will continue to do so. It’s hard to watch a race without worrying or thinking someone might break down. Everything these days is under a microscope and I’m not sure the sport can handle another Go For Wand or Eight Belles incident especially in HD from a thousand different camera angles and discussed on the twittersphere in a blink of the eye.

    Lowering the purses for bottom level claimers was smart but I really don’t know what else they can do and what trainers will tolerate. There are many reasons for breakdowns such as the weakening of the breed, over medication/injections, etc. and there are things they could do to decrease the occurrence such as more transparency and stricter rules with injections, less racing, etc. They will have to take these steps but of course it will not prevent all catastrophic breakdowns.

    I was at the 1/16th pole Saturday and saw Deferred Risk up close along with my wife and friend who hadn’t been to the races in a long time. I threw my form away, vowed to never come back and spent the rest of the day at the casino. Yes, I will probably return but do I want to bring people when there is a decent chance of seeing something like that?

    It is a cruel sport and there is no way to sugar coat it, hide it, or fix it completely.

  4. Great article! All question points are perfect (especially the last) and are critical for understanding the problem and solving it. Thanks, hopefully the industry reads the blog.

  5. it was very saddening when Hubbard met his demise, because that was the name of my high school history teacher (the guy who had to get us to pay attention to the details, a benefit none of us truly realized the value of until much later on).

    I’m thinking that the current mortality rate is a temporary fluke, and that if you take the rate for the past 25 years, and average it out, you’ll see the ups and downs in the graph.

    Do you think there is any merit in looking at it from this viewpoint?

    Also, your website design is excellent. You should be paid by the management of dozens of other woebegone sites that have no idea how to present the news, etc., in a coherent fashion.

    I can’t recommend the entire book unless you’re a professional speed reader, but there are very interesting comments in “The Paper,” by Peter Kluger about John Denson (Herald Tribune editor in the early 1960s) and how he radicaly redesigned the front page of the paper.

  6. Thanks for reading and for all the comments, folks, and for adding your thoughts on this process. Now that the task force has been named and its tasks set forth, it will be interesting to see what is learned about what happened this winter, and what might be changed going forward. I hope to be able to write about that next week.

  7. Hi Teresa, Good article, as always! I have a couple of opinions concerning the topic. I’m sorry to say that my partner and I had some long conversations last year concerning what we speculated might occur with the long awaited VLT’s up and running, and the resulting significant increase in NYRA purses. We felt that the increased purses would both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because horseracing is an expensive sport to own and maintain a horse(s), and the richer purse money could potentially make it a lot easier, if things worked out. Those higher purses would also, we were certain, set off “a feeding frenzy” to claim horses amongst other owners and trainers, hoping to prosper from the new set-up. That all seemed to occur, with horses changing hands left and right. But, I believe the curse revealed itself to be when certain owners and certain trainers would enter horses that were “suspect,” or possessing marginal and/or questionable physical issues in the hope that even if the horse didn’t win a major share of the purse, perhaps someone else would resolve “their problem” by electing to make claim it. If they were lucky, the horse would get claimed. After a while, I don’t believe those that were involved were even focused on trying to win a major share of a purse, as much as hoping that someone else would do them a favor and claim their horse, so they could get a large portion of their money back.

    I believe that all of this may result in better vetting and the inspection of horses running prior to a race at a NYRA racetrack. It also might be recommended that the medical records/treatments of any horses entered and running would need to be made public, as a way of trying to remedy the problem of horses breaking down.
    I think that the horses, the public, other owners and trainers deserve that consideration.

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