I have from the outset argued that death on the track is inevitable; while the numbers will fluctuate from meet to meet, track to track, state to state, death for the industry in the aggregate is unfailingly constant and, more or less, consistent (see my annual killed lists). Sure, there are things that can be done that would mitigate the killing somewhat, but because of horseracing’s very structure – how they’re bred, when they’re put into action, what they’re forced to do, how often they’re forced to do it, and how they’re generally treated – not in any significant way.
Still, it is easy for Racing to dismiss my cynicism – I, after all, “have an agenda” – not so easy, however, when said cynicism comes from one of their own. A recent Cronkite News article out of Arizona follows Dr. Verlin Jones, track veterinarian, as he makes his rounds at Turf Paradise. (Turf, you may recall, was hammered earlier this year for what was described as a double-the-national-average death rate in ’17-’18.) The journalist elicited Dr. Jones’ thoughts on two of the industry’s go-to “measures”: medication overhauls and veterinary vigilance. On the latter, Turf now requires a prerace exam for every starter (they used to only examine a sampling). Dr. Jones:
“I don’t really believe what I do in the morning (administering prerace exams) has a direct correlation on the deaths.” This bears repeating: The comprehensive prerace exam, one of the reformers’ magic bullets, is, says a 30-year veteran vet of the backsides, largely hollow. Imagine that.
Later, the article tackles the hot-button topic of drugs. Again, Dr. Jones:
“Right now in Arizona we have probably mid-level to low-level claimers. That population of horses comes with their own set of problems, so we deal with horses that have a higher level of injury… I think that right now these private practitioners on the back side, their hands are really, really handcuffed. When you’re dealing with this level of horse, they have a lot of problems. Those problems can be taken care of, but we have to have our full arsenal in order to do that.”
Then this: “I really feel like horses today are having to run in more pain. More pain leads to muscle fatigue, muscle fatigue leads to bone fatigue, bone fatigue leads to catastrophic breakdowns.”
In other words, less drugs may mean more dead horses, at least at the more pedestrian tracks – which is to say, the majority of tracks. Bullet two defused.
Finally, Dr. Jones addresses the supposed progress in the current season: “I can’t sit here and take credit and say that the reason we’re not having as many breakdowns is because we’ve done this or that, X, Y and Z. I honestly believe that the law of averages catches up with you, and the law of averages moved in our favor.” Exactly – fluctuating, but ever present. (To Dr. Jones’ point: From ’09-’18, with but one exception, Saratoga went in a perfect up-down pattern from one year to the next; deaths have ranged from 9-21, with an average, 14, almost right smack in the middle.)
One final thought: Let’s assume for the sake of argument that all those reforms were to actually make a difference and the killing (permanently) declines. What would such a scenario say about U.S. Racing? How should we think about people who could have been doing more to save horses all those years (decades) but chose not to? What to make of the good “horsemen(women)” who only now, with the heat red-hot, are taking dead animals seriously? Folks, if that’s not the definition of moral bankruptcy, I’m not sure what is. And I can’t for the life of me understand how anyone not directly profiting from such an industry could deem it worth preserving.