For the past few years I have had a lump in my throat during every big race. Major Derby preps, the Triple Crown races, the Breeders’ Cup and any other races shown on national television.
But now, I need somebody close by in case I need the Heimlich maneuver performed.
It’s not because I am alive in the Pick 4 or horseplayers around the world have wagered their hard earned money on my opinion. I have known for years that another breakdown or equine death could do irreparable damage to the sport.
We have had it happen in major races in the past. I was standing and cheering in a Las Vegas sportsbook in 1990 when Go for Wand broke down in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1). Nearly three decades later I can still feel the punch I felt in my gut that afternoon.
In 1999 Charismatic was seeking to win the Triple Crown. He struggled the cross the wire third after fracturing a foreleg in the Belmont Stakes (G1), with the late jockey Chris Antley holding his leg until help arrived. Charismatic survived his injury and went on to stud duty.
Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro was sent off as the heavy favorite in the 2006 Preakness Stakes (G1) but fractured three bones in and around his fetlock of his right hind leg shortly after the start of the race.
After surgery it seemed the nation was watching every move made by New Bolton Center at the University of Pennsylvania and Dr. Dean Richardson. The colt developed laminitis in both front hooves and was euthanized on January 29, 2007.
Eight Belles broke down after the wire in the 2008 Kentucky Derby with compound fractures of both front ankles and was euthanized.
Santa Anita’s Lip Service
The sport survived those events, but the 22 equine deaths that forced Santa Anita to halt racing and the fatal injury of Arms Runner on Sunday just three days after racing resumed has put the sport in the crosshairs of PETA and animal rights groups as well as mainstream media.
Social media has been abuzz and media outlets have realized that animal welfare issues make great clickbait material. Times have changed. The industry can no longer hide or sweep things under the rug after a catastrophe.
The Stronach Group did the right thing stopping racing and inspecting the main track and turf course for a cause of the problems. The area did get an unusual amount of rain over the course of the last few months.
The track also announced they were aiming to “modernize the sport of horse racing and provide the strongest medication regulations in the United States.”
Among the changes is a reduction in the amount of the anti-bleeding medication Lasix given to horses on race day and an amendment to restrict the use of whips by jockeys to “corrective measures” only.
Apparently jockeys no longer carry “whips” but “cushioned riding crops.”
Much of the changes were to appease PETA and attempt to put lipstick on this pig of a situation. Lasix and whips ain’t the problem.
Synthetic Tracks Not the Answer
There has been chatter among many that racetracks should not have given up so quickly on synthetic surfaces, which have proved to be safer that dirt.
The breakdown rates associated with each racing surface in 2018 were as follows according to the Jockey Club Equine Injury Database:
On turf surfaces, the rate was 1.20 per 1,000 starts in 2018, compared to 1.36 in 2017.
On dirt surfaces, the rate was 1.86 per 1,000 starts in 2018, compared to 1.74 in 2017.
On synthetic surfaces, the rate was 1.23 per 1,000 starts in 2018, compared to 1.10 in 2017.
Before we run to put the fake stuff back here are a couple of interesting numbers about tracks with synthetic surfaces:
Turfway Park had four fatalities in 2017 for a rate of 0.91. In 2018 it rose to eight fatalities for a rate of 1.99.
At Woodbine in 2017 they had six fatalities for a rate of 0.56. Last year they had 11, the rate rising to 1.06.
Golden Gate Fields and Presque Isle Downs had better numbers in 2018 than in 2017.
It’s Not the Surface Stupid
Listen, the leading cause of breakdowns and fatalities in racing is not the surface. It is not Lasix. It is not the whip. It is race day medications, masking agents, bisphosphonates and whatever else trainers are using to block pain and enhance performance.
I don’t want to single out any one trainer, but what the hell, let’s do it anyway.
Jason Servis won the Florida Derby (G1) on Saturday with a colt he debuted for a $16,000 maiden claiming tag. He earned an 81 Beyer Speed Figure in his 9 ¾ length win. He then won a starter optional claimer with an 83 Beyer, and yet another with a Beyer bump of 19 points to 103.
He went gate to wire to win the Florida Derby with a 102 Beyer.
Okay, young horses show improvement, so let’s just mark that up to Servis just being lucky to get away with running the colt for just $16,000 in his debut effort.
But let’s look at his numbers for the Gulfstream Park championship meeting, one of the toughest to win at. Servis started 77 runners at the meeting and won with 35, an amazing 45% win clip.
(Gulfstream Park is also owned by The Stronach Group and these “widespread changes” going on at Santa Anita are not yet going to be put in place at other tracks they own).
Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott had a rock solid meeting and won at “just” a 19% clip. Seven-time Eclipse Award wining trainer Todd Pletcher won at a 25% clip. Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey won at a 22% rate. Graham Motion won with just 10% of his starters.
Is Servis a better horseman than any of those guys? I think not.
Servis certainly is doing something different than just about every trainer in the U.S. Maybe someday somebody will figure out what makes him such a good trainer. Inquiring minds would like to know.
Now Servis may just get up very early in the morning and be as honest as they come, and it might not be fair I am singling him out. But I think we all know there are some very bad actors in the sport, and they need to go away for this sport to survive, let alone thrive.
Racing resumes on Thursday at Santa Anita, and the biggest day of the meeting is Saturday. We have three Grade 1 races: The Santa Anita Derby, Santa Anita Oaks and the Santa Anita Handicap.
The next breakdown at Santa Anita is unfortunately inevitable. What if it happens on Thursday or Friday? What happens if it comes on Saturday? What if it occurs in one of the Grade 1 races in front of a national television audience on NBC Sports Network?
The horse racing industry tends to be reactive instead of proactive, and that may end up being the straw the breaks the camel’s back.
We saw what happened to greyhound racing in Florida, and anyone that thinks that can’t happen in horse racing and in particularly in California is kidding themselves.
The Derby is Coming
We are less than a month away from the Kentucky Derby, and Churchill Downs is certainly not off the hook. In 2018 the track had 16 fatalities, a rate of 2.73, one of the highest in the nation according to an article published in USA Today.
If we get through the Triple Crown injury free, we can then turn to the Breeders’ Cup, which as of now will still be held at Santa Anita.
Both the Breeders Cup Ltd. and The Stronach Group should have enough sense to realize the event cannot be held in California this year. The optics of a breakdown during the two-day championship event could be the final nail in the coffin for racing in California.
Kentucky, with the breeding industry as strong as it is would be the last state to want to ban racing. The Breeders’ Cup needs to move to Keeneland this year for the sake of the entire industry.
The industry needs to finally wake up and step up to eliminate the root causes of these breakdowns or tens of thousands in the industry will be out of work when racing ceases to exist.