Thursday, April 5, 2012

Racing Fatalities: Not So Simple After All

In the wake of an unprecedented number of fatalities during Aqueduct's inner-track winter meeting, both NYRA and the New York State Racing and Wagering Board (NYSRWB) have been very busy indeed. At NYRA, racing was moved to the main track a week or two earlier than usual, the NYRA vets who conduct pre-race inspections at the barns have been busily scratching horses at a far greater rate than is normal, and the casino-inflated purses have been cut back for low-level claiming races. The result so far: smaller fields, lower handle, and only a small drop in the fatality rate. In the 11 racing days since the changes went into effect, two more horses died on the track.

Meanwhile, the state racing board has also taken three steps seemingly reacting to the fatalities. The board appointed a four-member task force to investigate the deaths, changed the claiming rules to void an claim where a horse dies on the track, and made public its online database of equine fatalities and other "incidents."

The claiming rule is a step in the right direction. Its goal is to deter trainers from entering unsound horses in low-level claimers in the hope that some other trainer will take the bait and end up with the problem, or perhaps end up with a dead horse. A better rule, though, would have allowed the trainer making the claim to void it not only if the horse died on the track, but also if the horse failed to finish the race and to return to the unsaddling area after the race. As Teresa Genaro has pointed out, the new NYSRWB rule puts track veterinarians in a difficult position. If they think there's a chance of saving the horse, they'd prefer to take it off the track in the ambulance and make a decision about putting it down later. But if the do that, rather than euthanizing the horse on the track, they're probably dumping an unsound horse on the trainer that just claimed it. In the suspicious world of racing, vets' decisions will be endlessly second-guessed.

The big news, or perhaps, as explained below, non-news, is the release of the equine fatality data, going back to March, 2009. I'm sure that a number of racing's critics headed over to the website, hoping for confirmation that a few bad guys were killing horses at a great rate. I wonder how many times the data has already been searched for, say, Rudy Rodriguez, Dick Dutrow or David Jacobson.

But when one goes to the data, what stands out is the lack of clarity, the lack of easy-to-identify scapegoats, and, for that matter, the difficulty of determining when a horse's death can even be attributed to the trainer.

Let's start with that last point. The NYSRWB database includes all deaths of horses at the track, including, by my count, three stable ponies that seem to have died of old age. The database also includes horses that died from colic, laminitis, infections, heart attacks, getting loose and running into tractors, flipping in the paddock and fracturing their skulls, and just about an other improbable way of dying that you can think of.

But what we should focus on are breakdowns, muscular-skeletal injuries that happen when a horse is running at high speed in a race. So I went through the database to isolate only that kind of fatality. And even that isn't always clear from the data. While some fatality reports are precise -- "horse fell at 1/8th pole, fractured sesamoids" -- others aren't. Some of the reports simply say that the horse fell, without indicating the cause. So sorting the data involves making judgment calls.

Moreover, the mere fact that a horse breaks a bone or ruptures a suspensory ligament in a race doesn't mean that the trainer knew he or she was sending out an unsound horse. Accidents happen. But still, the perception among the public is that some trainers are more callous, more uncaring than others. Or perhaps the perception is that they're all uncaring. So I thought it useful to sort the data by trainer to see  if anything stood out.

I narrowed the data down to only those fatalities that resulted from muscular-skeletal breakdowns while racing or while breezing in training. For the three-year period from March 2009 through March 2012, there were, as well as I can determine from the records, 163 such fatalities, involving 99 different trainers. And the "usual suspects" were no more likely to be involved than most other trainers who made a lot of starts. Only two trainers had more than four breakdown fatalities in the three-year period, and only two had more than two in a single year; none of those were in the "usual suspect" category.

A dozen or so of the better-known trainers on the NYRA circuit, including Allen Jerkens, Shug McGaughey, Tom Bush and Stanley Hough, managed to go the entire period without losing a horse to a breakdown, though I suspect they would tell us that it was as much luck as any particular training acumen.

So to what can we attribute the increase in fatal breakdowns in the first quarter of 2012? By my count, there were 21 breakdown fatalities in that period, an annual rate of 84, far above the three-year average. the blue-ribbon panel appointed by the NYSRWB will be poring through the data and reaching its own conclusions, but I think that the data already tell us a couple of things.

First, it's not the inner track. Trainers have always said that the Aqueduct inner track is the safest racing surface on the NRA circuit, and this year's mild weather made it even easier to maintain.

Second, it's not the fault of a few bad apples among the trainers. The fatalities, both this year and over the past three years, are too widely distributed to blame it on a small number of rule-breakers.

Which leaves us with only one plausible explanation: the increase in purse levels for cheap claiming and maiden-claiming races. Racing is a tough economic game; many trainers barely squeak by. The temptation to run a horse just one more time for a big purse, even though the trainer knows it should really be retired, was too great to pass up. Fatalities were often high during the inner-track meet in earlier ears, though not as high as in 2012, but that's probably because NYRA cards many more low-level claimers in the winter anyway, when the good horses are on vacation or in  Florida, and because there's no turf racing in the winter. Turf is uniformly a safer surface than an kind of dirt.

So kudos to NYRA for reducing that temptation by cutting the purses for bottom-level races, and for telling its vets to be more aggressive in their morning inspections. With luck, by the time the NYSRWB panel makes its report, the problem will have been solved.

[For those who want the gory details, I have a spreadsheet showing breakdown fatalities by year and by trainer. Email me at if you'd like a copy.]