James E. “Ted” Bassett III was president of the Breeders’ Cup when a gruesome fatal breakdown occurred in the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Distaff.  Go for Wand broke her right front ankle during a stretch duel with the ultimate winner Bayakoa.  Mr. Bassett was watching the race with Ron McAnally, Bayakoa’s trainer, from a clubhouse box.  In Mr. Bassett’s autobiography he described the confusion and finger-pointing in the immediate aftermath:  “The crowd was in a state of hysteria.  Martha Gerry, a very prominent Thoroughbred breeder and owner, came up to Ron and angrily shouted in his face (as though it was somehow his fault), ‘I’ll never attend the races again!’  Ron began to shake and I told him, ‘Take it easy,’ and then I escorted him to the winner’s circle.  By the time we got there, Ron was in tears.  He was besieged by a hoard of media members firing questions at him, against a backdrop of shrieks of hysteria from the crowd.”

Episodes of athletes being severely injured or even killed sear into people’s memory and can affect their attitude toward a sport, whether it be horse racing, automobile racing, football, or any other high-risk competition.  I’ve heard countless parents say they will discourage or forbid their boys from playing football, owing to news of football-caused deaths and the scientific evidence about brain injuries.

A woman recently wrote me that she forever turned against horse racing in the wake of the injury to Barbaro in the 2006 Preakness.  I recall watching the incident on television with a small group of friends and one of the guests said “I think I’ll find something else to bet on.”  Another acquaintance told me of how shaken his friends were after going to the races for the first time ever at Keeneland and observing a fatal breakdown.

Extensively publicized breakdowns like Go for Wand and Barbaro are almost impossible for racing insiders to respond to effectively because of what psychologists refer to as availability bias.  Availability is one of many cognitive biases that impede critical thinking.  According to behavioraleconomics.com “Availability is a heuristic [mental shortcut] whereby people make judgments about the likelihood of an event based on how easily an example, instance, or case comes to mind.  For example, investors may judge the quality of an investment based on information that was recently in the news, ignoring other relevant facts.  Similarly, it has been shown that individuals with a greater ability to recall antidepressant advertising estimate the prevalence of depression to be higher than those with low recall.”

The Kentucky Derby and Preakness have rarely had breakdowns, much less fatalities, in their nearly 150-year existence.  Yet people are apt to overestimate the frequency of racing-related breakdowns when they mentally shortcut to Eight Belles falling just beyond the finish line in the 2008 Kentucky Derby or to Barbaro’s injury at the start of the Preakness.  And the emotion evoked by the sight of a breakdown swamps the sterility of facts, regardless of what the facts show.  Misperceptions are reinforced by the confirmation bias, as explained by Psychology Today: “Once we have formed a view, we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it.”

The Equine Injury Database provides empirical evidence that American horse racing has made great progress in racetrack safety since breakdown statistics were first published in 2009.  But owing to the availability bias, hard facts won’t matter much next time there is a fatal breakdown in the midst of a high-profile race.  While racetracks and the racing industry per se need a contingency plan in order to be proactive in responding, availability theory tell us they will be up against strong emotions.  Their narrative should be fact-based but also must be crafted in a caring and emotional way.  It is not enough to say “That’s just part of horse racing” or to rely mostly on statistics about how racing has made substantial gains in the safety of its equine athletes.

Copyright © 2018 Horse Racing Business


  1. Ken Hamilton says

    Breakdowns are a major reason why I am gravitating more and more toward harness racing, plus the big names race a lot more often.