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.

As previously relayed, a bicameral bill has been introduced in New York that would strip that state’s racing industry of most of its quarter-billion-dollar annual subsidy. And now the war (of words) is on. Because the racing people can’t rationally justify this corporate welfare – propping up an archaic gambling industry at the expense of schoolchildren is, or at least should be, a political loser – they have framed this as an animal-rights action, as if somehow that’s bad. NYRA spokesman Patrick McKenna:

“Organizations like NYClass, PETA and Horseracing Wrongs have long been philosophically opposed to horse racing and make no secret of their desire to end the sport. … [T]hese groups are only interested in how best to damage horse racing to further their own political agenda. … [T]hey cannot be trusted.” And more: The Thoroughbred Daily News: “Backed by a number of animal rights groups, two New York state lawmakers have introduced a bill….” And Horse Racing Nation: “The bill is supported by a litany of the usual suspects attempting to eradicate horse racing, including Patrick Battuello of Horseracing Wrongs….”

For its part, the coalition has chosen to fight this mainly on the economics line. And that’s fine, for on that, we’re on solid ground: The 19,000 jobs cited by the industry is almost certainly inflated. But even if not, (a) it’s still a tiny fraction of the overall workforce, (b) most of these jobs are low-paying, and (c) many of them seasonal/part-time. Besides, how many jobs could other NY industries create with $250 million/year in free money? Also, after accounting for the cost to regulate racing, the return to the state via taxes and fees is fairly negligible. And finally, each of the 11 NY tracks sits on valuable property – property that can and will be redeveloped, leading to new (probably better) jobs, new economic activity, and new tax revenue (proof here).

Still, I must ask, why should we run from the animal-rights tag? Is horseracing not, at its core, a moral issue? Are these animals not being exploited, abused, and killed by the thousands every year (see horseracingwrongs.org) and all for nothing more than $2 bets? In my view, then, if we can agree that it is wrong – immoral – to treat horses this way, for this purpose, then the questions of how many jobs are at play or what kind of economic activity is generated are wholly irrelevant.

But here’s the thing, and contrary to what the industry believes, going after the subsidies is not a backdoor tactic. Unfortunately, hearts and minds alone will not win the day. We can, and probably already do, have most New Yorkers with us, but as long as these subsidies remain on the books, the cruelty and killing will continue (while the horse people laugh all the way to the bank). In other words, this bill is not an animal-rights ploy – it’s an absolute necessity.

(We will provide information on how best to support the bill in the near future.)

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.