RIGHTING THE SHIP

The injury and subsequent euthanasia of Mongolian Groom at the 2019 Breeders’ Cup naturally and understandably engendered anguish, anger, threats by PETA, and even paranormal explanations like trainer Bob Baffert’s remark that “We’re cursed.” 

Putting aside the short-term “noise,” it is more productive to look at how American horse racing has arrived at an inflection point.  Before beginning, let’s stipulate that injuries occur to all athletes and getting injuries to zero is impossible and an unrealistic goal. 

The site for the 2019 Breeders’ Cup championships was Santa Anita and the sites for 2020 and 2021 are Keeneland and Del Mar.  These three racetracks have in common that all replaced dirt racetracks with synthetic surfaces and then reversed course and went back to dirt, ostensibly because bettors and the Breeders’ Cup prefer dirt.  The synthetic-to-dirt decisions immediately led to a spike in horse fatalities. 

At Del Mar, horse deaths rose from 1.75 per thousand starts on its synthetic track in 2014 to 2.44 on the new dirt surface in 2015.  In 2016, there were 12 horse fatalities at Del Mar and 23 in 2017, bringing unwanted and damaging national attention. 

Keeneland in 2013 (the last year for its synthetic surface) experienced 0.43 fatalities per thousand starts compared to 2.11 on its new dirt surface in 2014.  Keeneland had several high-profile breakdowns during races in its recently concluded fall meet.

Santa Anita in 2010 went from 0.59 fatalities per thousand starts on its synthetic surface to 3.45 on its new dirt surface.  In 2019, the track had 37 horse deaths in training and racing, including the notorious breakdown in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. 

(Click here to access a Horse Racing Business article from February 2019 titled “Analysis of Horse Fatalities at Santa Anita: Part 1.” Click here to read “Analysis of Horse Fatalities at Santa Anita: Part 2.”)

The top management at these racetracks repeatedly state that safety for jockeys and horses is their utmost concern.  This is obviously contradicted by the fact that all three tracks knowingly, based on hard evidence, replaced the safest racing surface, synthetics, with the most hazardous surface, dirt.

When the horse death toll at Santa Anita began to climb in 2019, and garnered international attention, the Breeders’ Cup board voted to keep the event at Santa Anita.  While a horse death could have occurred at an alternate site, the Breeders’ Cup inexplicably and recklessly chose to hold the event at a racetrack that manifestly had unsolved safety issues and was under close scrutiny and withering criticism.  Thus when the breakdown transpired in the Classic, the Breeders’ Cup was defenseless.

(Click here to access a Horse Racing Business article from June 2019 titled “A Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita in 2019 Would Be a Terrible Blunder.”)

American horse racing is in a public-relations nightmare largely because of poor decisions made by leadership at the Breeders’ Cup and the three aforementioned racetracks.  But they are not alone.  Churchill Downs continues to invite disaster by persisting with a 20-horse field in the Kentucky Derby and a vocal and powerful contingent of trainers and owners resists mightily when it comes to America joining most of the rest of the world in running drug-free races. 

The path to saving horse racing as a viable sport and business is clear.  However, it is unlikely that the same people who contributed so much to the current sad state of affairs are willing and/or capable of righting the ship and setting it on a prosperous course.

(Click here to access a Horse Racing Business article from September 2019 titled “A Lethal Combination: Tin Ears, Bad Decisions, and Poor Optics.”)

Copyright © 2019 Horse Racing Business

Comments

  1. Thank you for publishing the stark differences in the statistics comparing surfaces. The industry is at a crossroad and I fear the past history of bad decisions will prevail. The breeders have invested in bloodlines proven on dirt and have no desire to alter course. I understand their perspective but, the line has to be drawn at some point or this industry will be doomed in the eyes of the public. All of the moving parts involved need to be more comprehensive for this campaign to keep racing a viable sport successful. And therein lies the rub. Too many moving parts within an industy that has no desire to centralize. The answers are as plain as the noses on their faces.

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