ANALYSIS OF HORSE FATALITIES AT SANTA ANITA: PART 2

Statistics from the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database presented in part one (see article on February 27, 2019) depict that Santa Anita is a risky racetrack for horses on its dirt and two turf courses. And risk ratcheted up when Santa Anita abandoned its demonstrably safer synthetic surface on the main track in 2010.

While the root cause of the deaths of 19 horses since Christmas is uncertain, the main culprit is thought to be heavy rainfall. One of the reasons track management gave for removing the synthetic surface in 2010 was drainage problems. Now, in 2019, rain is once again cited.

Santa Anita may be in an unusual geographical location with atmospheric conditions that make its dirt and turf courses difficult or impossible to consistently maintain for safety. Whatever the reason, statistics from the Equine Industry Database show that North American racetracks have, on average, a much lower fatality rate per 1,000 starts than Santa Anita.

If you ask racetrack managers how they rank the safety of jockeys and horses, they typically say it is of utmost concern, which can be taken to mean the number 1 concern. Yet, in operating a for-profit racetrack, mitigating considerations come into play.

To illustrate, it is well-documented that American horseplayers prefer to bet on dirt races rather than races run on synthetics. Similarly, owners, trainers, and horse breeders mostly favor dirt over synthetic. Lastly, the Breeders’ Cup reportedly wants its non-turf races held on dirt in order to please owners and trainers and to boost betting handle.

Thus the dilemma that track owners and executives face is that there is a dichotomy of compelling facts. On the one hand, they know from scientific evidence and experience that synthetic surfaces are safest for horses and jockeys. On the other hand, dirt surfaces are preferred by key constituencies and–most of all–by American bettors, who pay the bills.

An obvious partial remedy to the ongoing death toll at Santa Anita is to return the dirt racetrack to a synthetic surface and to cease racing on the more hazardous downhill grass course. Coping with drainage issues with a synthetic surface is far more tolerable than routinely accepting so many horse deaths–some of which could be prevented–and tarnishing racing’s already fragile image in the process. Accusations of cruelty are not easily countered when fatalities during races and training annually reach double digits…especially when the prevailing public perception is that something should be done about it.

While dirt tracks promote betting and placate trainers and owners in the here and now, in the longer term, chronic negative publicity in the mainstream media–like a rash of horse deaths at a prominent racetrack–could diminish or even fell horse racing as a sport and business enterprise. Public opinion will increasingly turn against an industry that appears through its actions to place commercial outcomes over the well-being of riders and horses. Greyhound racing, for instance, was banned by Florida voters in November 2018.

A National Geographic article in 2017 pertaining to the closing of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus after 146 years commented: “Animal welfare has emerged as a unifying bipartisan issue in a contentious political landscape.”

Taking a longer-term view of what is best for the future of racing may be painful in the short-term but turn out to be a company-saving decision for a flagship racetrack like Santa Anita.

Copyright © 2019 Horse Racing Business

Click here to read a 2006 article in The Horse about the California Horse Racing Board mandating the installation of synthetic surfaces at the state’s Throughbred racetracks to reduce the large number of horse fatalities. Thirteen years and numerous horse deaths later, Santa Anita is still struggling with how to achieve this humane objective.

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