“Our goal is to reduce the number of racehorse deaths and injuries to zero, and we have taken many productive steps toward reaching that goal over the past four years.” – NYS Equine Medical Director Scott Palmer, VMD
Midway through Saratoga’s nightmare of a meet (21 dead horses) last summer, the New York Racing Association (NYRA) issued the latest in what seems a never-ending stream of we’ve-got-this-killing-thing-under-control statements. The first thing that jumped out with this one was the length – there were lots of words (over 2,200); the second, related to the first, the almost risible redundancy, with multiple people being quoted saying basically the same thing – “equine safety” is our top priority – and the same “measures” repeated over and over again. (Never mind that these are the same measures that, in one form or another, have been talked about for years.)
“increased veterinary presence during training hours”
“state-of-the-art monitoring of horses”
“the strictest equine medication rules in North America”
“comprehensive trainer education”
“extensive and continuous testing of racing and training surfaces”
Leaving aside for a moment Racing’s many other wrongs – the commodification, the intensive confinement and isolation, the drugging, doping, and whipping, slaughter – what this statement amounted to was nothing less than a master’s course in manipulative marketing (a.k.a. propaganda). Supported by a stable of polished professionals – vets, lawyers, PhD’s – it read as exhaustive, meticulous, scientific:
“[Dr. Mick Peterson’s] tests include the use of ground penetrating radar that looks at cushion depth, moisture, and composition of racing surfaces, immediately identifying any variations outside pre-determined criteria. His team also performs physical samples of the soil using triaxial sheer testing to maintain target clay, silt and sand ratios on the main track. Additionally, Dr. Peterson inspects the overall performance and consistency using the Biomechanical Surface Tester, which replicates loads and speed of a thoroughbred’s leading forelimb at gallop. This test looks closely at vertical and horizontal load on the hoof during impact with the surface.”
“ground penetrating radar…triaxial sheer testing…Biomechanical Surface Tester”
How are the uninitiated, which is to say the vast majority of people out there, to come away with anything but the distinct impression that Racing is all over this, leaving no stone unturned in an almost single-minded pursuit of equine well-being. (Saratoga, by the way, has averaged 14 dead horses a summer since the Commission began disclosing such things in 2009. Which of course raises the question, where was this zeal back in 2010? Answer: They weren’t getting hammered with bad press then.)
But facts, as the great John Adams once said, are stubborn things. So, let’s direct our attention to a few. Follows are the Gaming Commission death totals for NYRA’s three tracks – Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga – for 2013, when the much-ballyhooed “Task Force” implemented many of its supposed improvements, and 2017:
2013 – Aqueduct, 23 dead; Belmont, 38 dead; Saratoga, 9 dead; total, 70 dead
2017 – Aqueduct, 17 dead; Belmont, 40 dead; Saratoga, 21 dead; total, 78 dead
That’s an 11% increase in horses dying at NYRA racetracks from 2013 to 2017.
Okay, they’ll say, but those totals include deaths from “non-racing” causes (e.g., colic, laminitis). (By dubbing them so, the industry is effectively saying, “that’s not on us”; morally, however, the how matters not a whit – a dead racehorse is a dead racehorse.)
On-track – racing or training – only, then:
2013 – Aqueduct, 21 dead; Belmont, 32 dead; Saratoga, 9 dead; total, 62 dead
2017 – Aqueduct, 14 dead; Belmont, 29 dead; Saratoga, 19 dead; total, 62 dead
Increasingly desperate, I can then imagine them asking for racing totals only. Okay:
2013 – Aqueduct, 14 dead; Belmont, 6 dead; Saratoga, 5 dead; total, 25 dead
2017 – Aqueduct, 12 dead; Belmont, 10 dead; Saratoga, 8 dead; total, 30 dead
A 20% – yes, 20% – increase. Fancy that. But in the press release, NYRA’s Hugh Gallagher says this: “As a result of these reforms, the number of catastrophic injuries during races occurring on NYRA tracks has been reduced by nearly 50 percent since 2013.” So what gives? Is Mr. Gallagher simply making stuff up? No, nothing as nefarious as that, but they are, as is their wont, dissembling and deceiving. For you see, “catastrophic,” to NYRA, means “musculoskeletal breakdowns” – broken legs, ruptured ligaments – only. In other words, imploded hearts (“sudden cardiac events,” they call them), broken necks, head traumas, and pulmonary hemorrhages need not apply. Imagine the audacity of these people.
But it’s even worse. In 2013, the three NYRA tracks had 247 days of live racing; 2017, 234. That’s a 5% decrease in racedays. Deaths up, number of races down. To be clear, though, I’m not arguing that things are getting worse; only that despite what NYRA and the Jockey Club – an industry group with a vested interest in good news and whose celebrated database I have already debunked – say, they’re not getting better. Since I began documenting in 2014, my annual kill lists have remained remarkably consistent. In fact, though not by a significant margin, the 2017 toll is the highest I’ve yet recorded; for all NY tracks, the ’13 and ’17 totals are almost exactly the same: 122, 121. These are hard facts. Please don’t get distracted by their pony and pony show.
As I have previously written, the simple truth is that the maiming and destruction of racehorses is inherent to the industry. Death at the track is, always has been, and always will be an inevitable part of racing. There is nothing they can do to stop the carnage. Nothing. At least not in any meaningful way. And what’s more, they know it. Now, go back and re-read Dr. Palmer’s quote at the top of this post and try to imagine the gargantuan effort it must have taken to utter those words with a straight face.
Other posts on NYRA subterfuge: