The joy in the BloodHorse headline last week was practically palpable: “Equine Injury Database: Another Record Year for Safety.” All of racing, not just at BloodHorse, is celebrating. Here, they’re saying, is proof positive that reform is working; horseracing is becoming safer. Well.
While I have previously addressed The Jockey Club’s (TJC) “Equine Injury Database” (EID), in light of the hype over that “record year,” I feel a revisit is warranted. First, you should know, the only reason the EID exists is because of public and political outcry over Eight Belles’ horrific breakdown at the 2008 Kentucky Derby. It was a marketing device, nothing more, nothing less. And it worked. At least until we came along. Still, it is TJC, meaning that well-intentioned journalists (not the ones at BloodHorse, of course) can easily fall prey to all that supposed tradition and avalanche of stats. It all sounds so convincing. Until, that is, you start peeling back. So, let’s start peeling.
First, the database is completely voluntary. While most tracks participate, some do not. Besides that, no third party – not the JC, not the states, no one – verifies the submitted data. At the risk of stating the obvious, dead horses are bad for business. So, not only is there no compelling reason for tracks (trainers, owners, etc.) to give a complete accounting, there is a vested interest to not. Self-reporting – an honor system – the kills that they are directly responsible for? Please.
The list of “Participating Tracks” is bloated with long-since defunct venues. Yes, that’s right, included on their list – which the longer, after all, makes their efforts seem more impressive – are tracks that no longer exist: Atlantic City (closed 2015), Bay Meadows (closed 2008), Beulah Park (closed 2013) – and that’s just the “As” and “Bs.” By my count, there are well over a dozen shuttered “participating tracks.” Imagine that.
Of the active tracks that do participate, less than a quarter do so publicly. The great majority of the tracks that submit data don’t allow TJC to attach said data to those specific tracks. Besides being cowardly, this makes it impossible for someone like me to cross-confirm (exceptions to follow).
The database is anonymous. No names, no dates, (mostly) no locations. Once again, no opportunity for me to match. In addition, and clearly by design, it keeps the victims safely secreted away – messy carcasses converted to sterile rates. And speaking of rates…
The key number – “fatal injuries” per 1,000 starts – is (intentionally) misleading. This reads, at least to the untrained eye, as deaths per 1,000 horses. But the typical racehorse logs many starts (up to 25) each year, making the kill rate per 1,000 horses much higher, certainly a number they are loath to tout.
And now on to the big ones. Missing from the data altogether are the following:
Training kills are at least as common as those occurring in-race. In addition, there are more than twice as many private training facilities in this country as public racetracks. It should not be hard, then, to see how these numbers begin to explode.
Roughly 25% of the 100 or so flat tracks in the U.S. run Quarterhorse races – some exclusively. According to TJC, these poor animals don’t count. And neither do…
Here is what I previously wrote regarding a pair of 2017 steeplechase kills at Saratoga: Yet, both (Fall Colors and Meteoroid) were Thoroughbreds, both, obviously, died on those same hallowed Saratoga grounds, both races pari-mutuel. In other words, there was no rational reason to exclude them. Except that doing so helps make the Saratoga kill-rate better, and hence, The Jockey Club’s (industry’s) national rate.
As for the only deaths TJC does include – Thoroughbreds who die while racing – here, too, they employ significant restrictions. From their “Facts” page: “The EID annual statistics and the by-track reports (where available) include all Race Related Fatalities — all horses that die or are euthanized as a direct result of injuries sustained participating in a race and within 72 hours of such race.”
This, of course, leaves out the countless who are euthanized (for race-related injuries) off site (owner’s/trainer’s farm, at a rescue) or outside that 72-hour window (an injury that doesn’t heal, a surgery that goes bad). In other words, more hidden carnage.
And then there is the rather large question of what, exactly, qualifies as a “race-related fatality.” While TJC says these fatalities include “musculoskeletal injuries, non-musculoskeletal injuries, and sudden deaths,” a closer examination reveals otherwise. According to TJC, at Finger Lakes, one of the minority of tracks that airs its numbers, there were two raceday fatalities last year. But according to the NYS Gaming Commission, there were three. Not counted, presumably, was Con He Win, killed Aug 26: “broke through starting gate, ran through rail – injured stifle, euthanized.”
Remington Park offers a more stark example. In 2020, Remington, says the EID, notched 6 racing kills; the Oklahoma Racing Commission (via my FOIA) begs to differ: 12 – twice as many. Which ones were omitted? A quick look at the list reveals obvious candidates: Baddowndasher, Mar 19: “horse collapsed – severed spinal cord”; Might B Magic, Mar 28: “lacerated tendon”; Oasis Beauty, Oct 1: “collapsed after race, died in shedrow [next day].” The other nine, however, were all fractures of one kind or another. With three of these also excluded (pelvic?, scapula?), it would appear that in the eyes of TJC not even all fractures are created equal.
And these two tracks were no anomalies. Racing deaths last year:
Belmont: 6 reported by TJC; 7 according to the Gaming Commission
Delaware: 3 reported by TJC; 4 through FOIA (Dept. of Agriculture)
Gulfstream: 26 reported by TJC; 27 through FOIA (DBPR)
Indiana Grand: 11 reported by TJC; 13 through FOIA (Racing Commission)
Laurel: 12 reported by TJC; 14 through FOIA (Racing Commission)
Lone Star: 5 reported by TJC; 8 through FOIA (Racing Commission)
Monmouth: 5 reported by TJC; 6 through FOIA (Racing Commission)
Bottom line: It is my firm belief that in direct contradiction to what they claim, TJC does not count cardiac collapses, pulmonary hemorrhages, blunt-force head traumas, broken necks, severed spines, et al. In all probability, their “racing fatalities” are strictly confined to catastrophic leg fractures.
So, to recap: participation in the database is voluntary; of those tracks that do participate, most do not allow their information to be made public; the deaths are unidentifiable (no names, dates, etc.); and most important, the following deaths are NOT included in the year-end “statistics” and that neat, little rate those stats spawn: Quarterhorse, steeplechase, training, at least some racing, and, it goes without saying, stall. Calls to mind Mark Twain’s famous quote: “Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are more pliable.” In short, TJC’s oft-cited, much-celebrated “Equine Injury Database” is a fraud. A complete and utter fraud. For objective, verifiable truth about both the scale and depth of American horseracing carnage, stay right where you are.
*** For 2020, TJC “reports” 322 American racehorse deaths. (TJC number is actually 333, but this also includes Canadian deaths. Unfortunately, the sole Canadian track with public data is Woodbine, so I could only subtract its 11 deaths from TJC total, giving us the 322.) I have documented almost three times that number – 944.