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.

Allow me to put a spin on an old legal adage: If you have the facts on your side, argue the facts. If you have compassion on your side, argue compassion. If you have neither, use some rhetorical flourishes and distract like hell. In a recent Daily Racing Form article, columnist Jay Hovdey reviewed last Thursday’s meeting of the California Horse Racing Board, where, you may recall, activist after activist rose to decry the cruelty and the killing at Santa Anita Park:

“There was no arguing with the animal rights protesters who flooded the [CHRB] meeting on Thursday with their impassioned recitation of undeniably grim statistics. From their point of view, the business itself is terminally flawed, and no amount of anecdotal testimony to the contrary would convince them otherwise.

To them – as opposed to us – Thoroughbred racing is replete with casual sadists and greedy entrepreneurs whose callous disregard for the well-being of its captive horses belies any sob stories of dedication to the health and welfare of the animals. ‘Set them free’ is their mantra. Relegate them to the wilds of unspecified sanctuaries. Race drones or small children if you must. But leave the horses be.”

Well, at least he didn’t (because, of course, he can’t) try to refute the “grim statistics.” Of course, Mr. Hovdey, we are not seeking to set any domesticated horse (or any domesticated animal, for that matter) free. That would be cruel. But you know that already, don’t you? “Set them free,” “race drones or small children” – I get it, having a laugh at our expense. That’s fine. Truth is, I would have ignored this altogether – simply dismissing it as the pathetic rantings of a sad, old racing hack pandering to an equally sad and rapidly fading base – had you not debased yourself even lower:

“In my wildest dreams, while listening to the audio feed of the CHRB meeting and its denigration of all things racing, I imagined chairman Chuck Winner producing a speaker’s request card and calling out the name, ‘Martine Bellocq.’

Martine would enter in her wheelchair, pushed by her husband, Pierre Bellocq Jr., with cap, sunglasses, and gloves protecting her tender skin grafts and her left leg slightly elevated, a concession to the circulatory complications caused by the amputation of her foot.

Her voice is high-pitched and strained now as a result of smoke inhalation and corrosive pulmonary lavage, but Martine would not need to say much. Her actions of Dec. 7, 2017, at her barn at the San Luis Rey Downs Training Center, speak louder than the loudest of protests raised in opposition to the life she has led for most of her 64 years.

Of course, someone at the meeting would have pointed out in protest that if there were no horse racing, and therefore no training center, Bellocq’s horses would not have been in danger as a fast-moving finger of the Lilac Fire swept through the southern end of her barn. That sort of logic also would get you tossed as a hopeless lightweight in a freshman class debate.

Bellocq plunged into the smoke and flames that day in an effort to lead her colt Wild Bill Hickory from his stall. That he had shown promise as a young equine athlete was beside the point. The committed caretaker in Bellocq could see only her panicked young creature at horrible risk and did something only a mother, or a fully protected firefighter, would do.

The terrified colt would not budge, though, and became one of 46 horses who died in the fire. Bellocq sustained third-degree burns over 60 percent of her body before Pierre reached her and carried her out of the inferno. He was treated for smoke inhalation, but he recovered and sounded just fine, as usual, when they were reached at home on the afternoon of the CHRB meeting. It had been a tough week.

‘There’s still a lot of healing going on with her skin,’ Pierre said, as Martine coached him from the background. ‘And there are complications with blood clots in her leg, which holds up progress with her prosthesis. I just hope her spirits can hold up.’ And from Martine came, ‘We’ve got to win a race!’

That’s right, the Bellocqs are still in the game, with a small stable in one of the new, canvas-topped structures at San Luis Rey. They had a pair of seconds last month with the maiden full sisters Brite Rivers and Lucky Brite Eye, and Saturday night they had the filly Grey Tsunami entered in a mixed race at Los Alamitos.”

First, what happened at San Luis Rey was a massacre – a massacre, this lightweight says, for which Racing bears full responsibility. (A reminder of that massacre, from Pierre’s memory, The San Diego Union-Tribune: “The first thing I saw was Billy…He laid down, his legs burned to the knees and the hocks. There was nothing below the knees. He must have thrown himself into the shed row, in flames. It’s the most horrible scene I’d ever seen.”) But beyond the snarky shots and crass manipulation lies this uncomfortable truth: While I am sincerely sorry for this woman’s fate, and the suffering she continues to endure, holding her up as the embodiment of “Horseracing cares” underscores the sorry and increasingly desperate state of the industry. “Something only a mother” would have done, Mr. Hovdey? Well:

What kind of mother would rip her child from his actual mother (and other family) while still just a babe?

What kind of mother would keep her child locked – alone – in a tiny room for over 23 hours a day?

What kind of mother would allow her child to be whipped?

What kind of mother would put her child up “For Sale,” as Bellocq did last month with each of those aforementioned horses? (In fact, Bellocq will have Brite Rivers on the market again in just three days’ time.)

What kind of mother would risk having her child fall into unscrupulous hands this way, perhaps even into a kill-buyer’s?

What kind of mother would put her child’s life in grave danger – every two or three weeks – as a means of enriching herself?

A mother? If not for the gravity involved, ‘twould be risible.

(Anticipating backlash, let me reiterate: I feel bad for Ms. Bellocq and wish her the best in recovery. This is really not about her; rather, it’s an indictment of those, like Jay Hovdey, who will stop at nothing – exploiting someone’s personal tragedy, e.g. – in order to preserve their precious bloodsport.)

When I last wrote about the Jockey Club’s “Equine Injury Database” (EID), I pointed out, among other things, how grossly misleading it is. Today, I build on that a bit: In 2017, according to the EID, Saratoga Race Course, one of the minority of tracks that make fatalities public, incurred six deaths. Anyone at all familiar with this site knows that 2017 was an all-time – all-time meaning from 2009, the year the NYS Gaming Commission began disclosing deaths and, not coincidentally (outcry after Eight Belles), the first year of the EID – high for Saratoga, 21 dead horses. So, what gives?

For starters, the Jockey Club only reports raceday kills. The 11 racehorses felled in morning practice? Not applicable, says the JC. The two young, awaiting-next-race horses who died, likely very painfully, of colic? Disregarded. So, that’s 13 dead horses who didn’t merit a mention in the database. Fine. We already knew that. But at this point you may notice that 21 minus 13 leaves 8; the JC says 6. So, again, what gives?

Here are the 21 dead at Saratoga ’17:

Lakalas, May 28, “collapsed and died after breezing”
Queen B, July 6, “fractured leg…ambulanced to clinic – euthanized”
Wanztbwicked, July 22, “suspensory rupture – euthanized on track”
Angels Seven, July 28 (racing), “fractured leg – euthanized on the track”
Howard Beach, July 29, “fractured leg…euthanized”
Positive Waves, July 29, “fractured cannon [and] sesamoids – euthanized”
Brooklyn Major, July 31 (racing), “collapsed and died after the finish of the race”
Marshall Plan, August 2, “fractured condylar – euthanized”
Fall Colors, August 3 (racing), “horse fell…died on track from trauma”
Munjaz, August 3 (racing), “took bad step…vanned off – euthanized”
Lakeside Sunset, August 5, “fractured leg – euthanized”
Unbroken Chain, August 6 (racing), “suffered a fatal musculoskeletal injury”
Duquesne Whistle, August 7, “was euthanized for abdomen colic”
Sweetneida, August 11 (racing), “took bad step, fractured sesamoids – euthanized”
Meteoroid, August 16 (racing), “[multiple] fractures – euthanized on track”
Sayonara Rose, August 17 (racing), “was euthanized on the track for leg fracture”
Travelin Soldier, August 19, “fractured leg – euthanized”
That Mr. P, August 26, “being treated for acute colic without resolution – euthanized”
Aggie’s Honor, August 31, “fractured cannon – euthanized”
Somekindasexy, September 18, “fractured both sesamoids – euthanized”
Roberta Brooks, October 14, “fractured cannon – euthanized”

Now, I can only surmise that the two missing from the Jockey Club’s accounting are the two who perished in steeplechase races. 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 – along with excluding training kills – helps make the Saratoga kill-ratio better, and hence the Jockey Club’s (industry’s) overall national ratio.

And this was no isolated incident:

2016 – the Gaming Commission lists 6 Saratoga racing kills; the EID, 5
2015 – the Gaming Commission lists 3 Saratoga racing kills; the EID, 2
2014 – the Gaming Commission lists 8 Saratoga racing kills; the EID, 6

The evidence is clear: The Jockey Club is not only under-reporting all kills/deaths – no training, no stall – but it is also under-reporting racing kills, rendering (again) its vaunted “Equine Injury Database” worthless. Read my Killed Lists instead.