While it may be hard to believe, the North Carolina legislature is actually considering a bill – the “North Carolina Derby Act” – that would introduce Thoroughbred racing to that state. (There are steeplechases in NC; one, Charlotte, recently recorded a kill.) Yes, that’s right, some tone-deaf politicians aim to bring a cruel, increasingly moribund industry to the great state of North Carolina. And so the battle is joined.

After reading a favorable board editorial in the News & Record, North Carolina’s third largest paper, I submitted my own, focusing, of course, on the cruelty and death. It was accepted and published today. I thank the editors for this wonderful opportunity to educate. (While the full text appears below, please clink on the link – again, here – to show our support for the paper.)

As the General Assembly considers whether to legalize horseracing in North Carolina, it is crucial that citizens and legislators be presented with all the information, starting with the fact that this proposal is about 70 years too late.

While there was a time when horseracing was popular, those days are long gone. The “Foal Crop” – the number of new Thoroughbreds entering the system each year – is about half of what it was just 30 years ago. All other metrics – racedays, races, field sizes, and, yes, attendance and handle (amount wagered) – are also down.

Demographically, things could not be worse: the typical horseplayer (regular bettor) is a middle-aged man; the younger generations are simply not interested. The reason for this is twofold: changing sensibilities, which we’ll get to later, and, of course, competition for the gambling dollar – lotteries, casinos, and now sports (real ones, that is) betting. And the effect has been devastating: Since 2000, 39 U.S. racetracks have been shuttered; only one new one has opened – and that only because it is being heavily subsidized by the state. In fact, the bulk of the American horseracing industry subsists entirely on corporate welfare, with wealthy owners pocketing public funds that should be going to general-good issues like education and infrastructure.

But equally if not more important is the moral aspect to all this. Self-serving, romantic rhetoric aside, stripped to its core horseracing is ugly and mean and cruel:

The typical racehorse is torn from his mother as a mere babe, thrust into intensive training at 18 months – years before his body is fully developed – and first raced at two, the rough equivalent of a first-grader. From there, the incessant grinding – again, on an unformed skeleton – begins, because if he’s not racing, he’s not earning. He is pumped, legally and otherwise, with myriad performance-enhancing, injury-masking, and pain-numbing chemicals. He is confined (alone, in a tiny stall for over 23 hours a day), commodified (lip tattoos, auctions, “claiming races”), controlled (cribbing collars, nose chains, tongue ties, blinkers), and cowed (bits and whips). And quite often, killed.

Through FOIA, Horseracing Wrongs has documented over 7,000 deaths at U.S. tracks just since 2014; we estimate that over 2,000 horses are killed racing or training across America every year. Cardiovascular collapse, pulmonary hemorrhage, blunt-force head trauma, broken necks, severed spines, ruptured ligaments, shattered legs. Over 2,000. Every year. In addition, hundreds more die back in their stalls from things like colic, laminitis, or, simply, “found dead in the morning.” And to be clear, this is not just a “cheap track” problem: Saratoga, which bills itself the “oldest sporting venue in the nation,” averages 15 dead a summer. Santa Anita, another elite track, has averaged 50 kills annually since 2007. And at Churchill Downs, home of America’s most celebrated race, the Kentucky Derby, 86 horses have perished over the past four years.

Then, too, slaughter. Two separate studies indicate that most – some 10,000-20,000 annually – spent or simply no-longer-wanted racehorses are mercilessly bled-out and butchered at “career’s” end. In truth, horseracing needs slaughter. In 2019, HorseRace Insider, a pro-racing publication, admitted the following: “The Jockey Club will not support a slaughter-free industry because it will cost $120 million per year to fund the care of the 20,000+ horses bred each year.” Again, The Jockey Club, Racing’s most prominent and powerful organization, will not support a slaughter-free industry – and for proof we need look no further than its refusal to endorse the SAFE Act, a bill that would prohibit the slaughter of American horses – because of cost. Imagine that.

As mentioned at the top, sensibilities toward animal exploitation, most especially regarding entertainment, are rapidly evolving. In just the past few years:

– Ringling Bros. has closed its doors for good, ending over a century of animal abuse.

– SeaWorld, after being exposed by the film Blackfish, has ended the captive-breeding of orcas and remains in slow, steady decline.

– There are rodeo bans in cities as diverse as Pittsburgh, San Francisco, St. Petersburg, and Fort Wayne.

– Both New York and Illinois have outlawed the use of elephants in any form of entertainment; New Jersey, Hawaii, and California have forbidden all wild-animal acts.

– And most relevant to the issue at hand, after the historic (and overwhelming) referendum vote in Florida in 2018, dogracing in America is all but dead. In fact, dogracing is outright prohibited on moral grounds in 41 of our 50 states.

Clearly, the winds of change are blowing in one direction. And despite its desperate marketing – “tradition,” “beauty,” “The Sport of Kings” – horseracing will not be spared. Indeed, in just the past year, two of the nation’s most influential papers – The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer – have called for racing’s outright end.

So, this is no time to look back, North Carolina. Horseracing in 2021 is an economic nonstarter. But of far more import, it is simply wrong. North Carolinians are known for their warmth, kindness, and generosity. We are only asking that that be extended to these intelligent, sensitive creatures. Please say no to horseracing.

Today, we launched our latest petition on change.org; the goal: end the subsidies that are keeping Pennsylvania horseracing alive and killing horses. Please sign here.

End the Subsidized Abuse and Killing of Horses in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania’s horseracing industry receives almost $250 million in corporate welfare every yearover $3 billion since the subsidies began in 2005. It is far and away the most subsidized industry in PA. And this for a business that, as measured by demand (wagers, attendance), has been in steep decline for decades. What’s worse, this massive taxpayer bailout of a decidedly nonessential industry – there are roughly 10,000 racing jobs in an overall state workforce of six million – has all come at the expense of public education – our children and young adults. To help put this in proper perspective, the per horse subsidy is nearly three times the per student subsidy (for those in the State System of Higher Education).

There is, of course, another cost to all this – one measured in lives. Since 2010, more than 1,400 horses have died at the state’s three flat tracks; more, still, have perished at the three harness tracks. In fact, in 2019, Parx led the country in kills with 59. Nationally, Horseracing Wrongs has documented over 7,000 deaths at U.S. tracks just since 2014; we estimate that over 2,000 horses are killed racing or training across America every year – with hundreds more dying in their stalls. As if not enough, most – some 10,000-20,000 annually – spent or simply no-longer-wanted racehorses are mercilessly slaughtered at career’s end. Yes, slaughtered.

Still, the killing is but a part of the story. There is, too, the everyday abuse. To wit:

Grinding of Unformed Bodies: Young, would-be racehorses are thrust into intensive training at 18 months – years before their bodies are fully developed. On the maturation chart, these equine babes are the rough equivalent of kindergartners.

Confinement and Isolation: Racehorses, innately social and herd-oriented, are kept locked – alone – in tiny 12×12 stalls for over 23 hours a day. Cruelty, defined.

Negation: Practically all the horse’s natural instincts and desires are thwarted, creating an emotional and mental suffering that is brought home with crystal clarity in the stereotypies commonly seen in confined racehorses – cribbing, bobbing, weaving, pacing, digging, kicking, even self-mutilation.

Control and Subjugation: Horseracing is lip tattoos, nose chains, lip chains, blinkers, tongue ties, cribbing collars, mouth bits, and, of course, whips.

Drugging and Doping: Racehorses are incessantly injected, legally and otherwise, with myriad performance-enhancing, injury-masking, and pain-numbing chemicals.

Commodification: By law, racehorses are literal chattel. They are ever being bought, sold, traded, and dumped – a stressful, tenuous existence that in and of itself causes pain. In fact, studies show that up to 90% of racehorses suffer from chronic ulcers.

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Editorial Board has thrice condemned the subsidies keeping horseracing afloat, and most recently called for racing “to be put out of its misery.” Governor Wolf has proposed redirecting some 200 million of those annual subsidy dollars to fund college scholarships for 44,000 students. In other words, the time to act is now. While we would love to see a day when horseracing is banned – like dogracing, which has been outlawed in 41 states – for now we are simply asking that the subsidies stop. This eminently just, long overdue measure would be a win-win for Pennsylvania: good for our children, good for our horses.

Last year, ahead of Belmont’s Opening Day, the New York Racing Association issued a statement that began:

The New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA) today announced a number of safety initiatives…for the upcoming 25-day spring/summer meet at Belmont Park. … The safety and welfare of horses…competing at NYRA tracks is our highest priority.

Two years ago, ahead of Belmont’s Opening Day, NYRA issued a statement that read, in part:

In addition to accreditation…by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Safety and Integrity Alliance, a variety of initiatives have been put in place since 2013 at all three NYRA racetracks…in areas such as racing surfaces and race-day scrutiny, as well as capital improvements and collaborative efforts…to ensure the safety of all participants. These extensive reforms and commitment to improving the safety of NYRA’s racing operations have led to demonstrably safer races.

Four years ago, in the midst of Saratoga’s 21-kill summer, NYRA released a statement that began:

In addition to the existing industry-leading equine health and safety policies and procedures already in place at NYS racetracks, the NYS Gaming Commission, NYRA and NYTHA are implementing additional actions immediately at Saratoga Race Course, including increased regulatory veterinary presence at the track during training hours, state-of-the-art monitoring of horses and comprehensive trainer education intended to share scientific findings of research into the types of injuries that occur at New York Thoroughbred racetracks and risk and protective factors that can help to prevent injury.

From a statewide regulatory and veterinary affairs perspective, other states look to New York for guidance in shaping their own regulatory and best-practice methods to ensure horse welfare.

State Equine Medical Director Scott Palmer added:

“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.”

And NYRA Safety Steward Hugh Gallagher:

“There is no issue more important to NYRA than the safety of our equine and human athletes. That is why NYRA has implemented extensive reforms and made significant investments since 2013 to improve track surface conditions, upgrade equipment, provide vets with more authority to monitor thoroughbred health, establish committees to oversee safety measures, and actively seek out advice and guidance from independent experts and scientists.”

Seven years ago, in response to a relatively light 12 dead at Saratoga (for context, Saratoga had 21 kills last year), NYRA issued the following:

Although New York State has made significant progress in reducing injuries and preventing the inappropriate use of medication in racehorses, the job of equine safety is never done. There will be challenges along the way. We are experiencing such a challenge during the 2014 Saratoga meet. A thorough investigation of all of the racing fatalities…is being conducted. We will leave no stone unturned in our efforts to identify the causes of death in all racing fatalities in New York. As stewards of the racehorse, we have a duty to do all that we can to honor and protect these incredible athletes.

Just this morning, Singapore Trader, five, was killed training at Belmont. He is the 16th dead horse at Belmont in less than four months – this, after 53 killed there last year. In fact, just since 2009 (when the Gaming Commission began disclosing these things), almost 1,000 horses have lost their lives at the three NYRA tracks. Almost 1,000.

“safety and welfare of horses is our highest priority”

“these extensive reforms have led to demonstrably safer races”

“other states look to New York for best-practice methods to ensure horse welfare”

“no issue more important to NYRA than the safety of our equine and human athletes”

“we will leave no stone unturned in our efforts to identify the causes of death”

They’re lying. Through their teeth.

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 Deaths
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.

Quarterhorse Deaths
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…

Steeplechase Deaths
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.