The horseracing industry distracts, dissembles, and deceives because it has to – the facts and the truth are squarely on our side. One of their go-tos, especially here in New York, is their supposed safety rate. Last week, I did an interview with NPR affiliate WAMC; it was mostly focused on the recently-concluded Saratoga meet. Of course, and as always, the industry was given space to respond. Here is NYRA spokesman Patrick McKenna’s statement to the station:
“NYRA’s organizational commitment to equine safety coupled with significant capital investments in our racing services and facilities, has ensured that serious equine injuries remain exceedingly rare at Saratoga Race Course.
“[T]he summer meet has included 393 races featuring more than 3,000 horses. Three of those 3,000 horses have suffered catastrophic injuries during live racing. On the training side, there have been roughly 8,000 timed workouts since the summer meet opened on July 14th. Of those 8,000 timed workouts, four horses have unfortunately suffered catastrophic injuries during morning training.
“While there is always more work to prevent all serious equine injuries, more than 99.9% of all races and high-speed workouts this summer have been conducted safely and without incident. NYRA prioritizes safety and integrity above all other considerations and continuously evaluates all aspects of the operation to provide the safest possible environment for training and racing. And as a nonprofit whose core responsibility is to safely conduct thoroughbred racing, NYRA has invested tens of millions of dollars in recent years on renovations and improvements to our racing and training facilities with an eye on enhancing safety.
“[T]he opponents of horseracing who seek to end the sport in New York are certainly entitled to their opinion, but they’re not entitled to their own set of facts. The fact is that thoroughbred racing in New York State and here at Saratoga Race Course is safer today than at any point in recent history.”
Let me begin by saying that Mr. McKenna is, if nothing else, a well-schooled propagandist, using the word “safety,” or variations thereof, no less than seven times. Impressive. As to his assertions, first, the vast majority of the horses who trained or raced at Saratoga this summer did so multiple times. So, each time a particular horse raced or had a timed workout it got counted. In other words, the dead-horses-per-pool-of-horses is higher than Mr. McKenna’s .1%. What it is exactly I can’t say because I don’t have access to all of McKenna’s data (which is a whole other issue). Even so, the facts – which are not mine by the way; they come directly from the state Gaming Commission – tell a far different story than the one peddled by NYRA.
So is it true that “racing in NYS and at Saratoga…is safer today than at any point in recent history”? The kill numbers (again, from the state) for the three NYRA tracks (Aqueduct, Belmont, Saratoga) since 2013, when Governor Cuomo’s task force from the year prior led to a bevy of new “safety protocols”:
2013: 70 dead horses
2014: 79 dead horses
2015: 59 dead horses
2016: 66 dead horses
2017: 78 dead horses
2018: 60 dead horses
2019: 65 dead horses
2020: 83 dead horses
2021: 76 dead horses
2022: 49 dead horses (incomplete: four months to go)
You’ll note that in the two most recent full years (’20, ’21) the death tolls were significantly higher than the average of 71 over the entire nine-year period. Worse still: In 2020, NYRA had its highest toll since 2012, and only two shy of the 2011 mark. This is NYRA “set[ting] the industry standard when it comes to safety and integrity.”
How about Saratoga itself? Well, since 2009, the first year of state disclosure, 207 horses have died at this hallowed track – an average of just under 15/summer. But here’s the thing, not including this year (as training continues into October), Saratoga’s kill count in each of the past six years has been higher than its historical average. That’s higher – for six straight years. “Safer today”? Please. Viewed another way, Saratoga Race Course, the self-styled “oldest sporting venue in the nation,” averages about two kills per week. That’s two dead “athletes” pretty much guaranteed every week during the “season.” Of what other sport on the planet can this be said?
And while we don’t have an exact kill rate, here’s yet another way of looking at it. Our research indicates that each year over 2,000 horses, about six every day, are killed at American racetracks. We know (Jockey Club) that the annual “foal crop” – the number of new Thoroughbreds coming into the system – has been running around 19,000. Now granted, these are just Thoroughbreds, and our killed lists reflect QuarterHorse and Standardbred deaths, too. But as the great majority of deaths are suffered by Thoroughbreds, we can confidently posit that each year an amount equal to 8%-10% of the foal crop is dying at U.S. tracks. And this doesn’t even begin to account for the multiple thousands more who are being bled-out and butchered upon “retirement.”
Now, Mr. McKenna can say that that kill rate is national, and he’s just defending NY. Well, here’s a truism he knows full well: Saratoga horses are industry horses, constantly moving, as all racehorses do, from track to track and state to state. In other words, it’s not Saratoga, it’s not NYRA, it’s not even NYS – it’s the single entity, U.S. Racing, we should be assessing. But since this started with Saratoga, here is where we land: Not including (obviously) the 12 who already died, Horseracing Wrongs maintains that most of the horses who raced at Saratoga this summer will, in the future, either die at a track – that’s any U.S. track, including, possibly, Saratoga next year or beyond – or at the abattoir. “99.9% safe”? An obscenity.