Today’s analysis presents a supporting view of HR 2012, the proposed federal Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act. Last Friday (11/22/13), an opposing view of HR 2012 was provided.
Sports can broadly be divided into three segments differentiated by how susceptible participants are to suffering severe and permanent damage from injuries. One group includes violent or inherently hazardous sports like American football, rugby, boxing, ultimate fighting, and downhill skiing, wherein the likelihood of horrible injuries are ever-present, including, for example, the documented brain damage from concussions–or death. The second group encompasses sports such as basketball, soccer, and baseball in which injuries can be consequential but the long-term effects are not as likely to be as debilitating. The final group includes noncontact sports like golf, tennis, and swimming, where injuries are least likely to be serious and lasting.
Horse racing assuredly belongs in the forefront of the first group (along with automobile racing) because of the proven risks to jockeys and their mounts. No one can rationally argue with the high death-per-thousand starts for racehorses; the evidence is unassailable. The Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database contains statistics from over 1.5 million starts and the most recent analysis reveals that the fatality rate per thousand starts is 1.92. However, dirt surfaces have the worst fatality rate at 2.1 per thousand starts, followed by turf at 1.74, and synthetics at 1.03. Therefore, over a typical year in the United States of 45,000-plus races, the number of animals that could be saved if all racetracks had synthetic surfaces is staggering. To be specific, the chances are over twice as high that a horse will die from injuries incurred on a dirt surface as opposed to a synthetic surface.
Yet American Thoroughbred racing’s reaction to these eye-opening statistics is predominately to ignore or disparage them and run the vast majority of races on dirt racetracks, rather than to pressure racetracks to convert to synthetic as soon as possible for the sake of jockeys and horses. The usual lame excuses are proffered, such as trainers and bettors prefer dirt…or American racing on dirt is a tradition…or American bloodstock is bred for dirt. In other words, horse and jockey safety concerns are subordinate.
Similarly, American racing has refused to join the rest of the civilized racing world in banning race-day medication. Furosemide is the medication crutch for the vast majority of modern-day trainers, an addiction that they can’t or won’t break. The Breeders’ Cup could not even make a policy stick that 2-year-olds would race without furosemide. When it is pointed out that most of the rest of the world does not permit medication on race day, furosemide apologists conjure up canards about how American racing is somehow different, or say or imply that European trainers cheat.
A sport can never be injury-free, but that does not mean that it should not have that as a goal. No one who is willing to think deeply and objectively about the scientific facts pertaining to racetrack-surface safety and the dependence on race-day furosemide can logically and honestly conclude that American horse racing interests have unfailingly dedicated themselves to making the sport as safe as possible. To the contrary, the route they have followed, the dirt and race-day medication combination, is the worst choice of all.
In the United States of the 21st century, with alarming findings on such perils as concussions from head injuries in football and soccer, a tuned-in society will demand changes or outright bans. The niche sport of horse racing is clearly at risk because it is more dangerous than it has to be, apathetic, and has a tin ear. Society will not continue to countenance a sport in which 1.92 horses are fatally injured per thousand starts, especially when some prominent owners and trainers fight obvious steps to make it safer and argue vociferously for maintaining the status quo. The dismissive comment that “injuries are just part of the game” is unacceptable and rings hollow.
A humane society will not support inhumane sports that permit injuries to its participants when many of them could be prevented. Horse racing will atrophy, like a frog in water brought to a boil, if it does not change drastically and soon. Since there is manifestly little hope for the catalyst to come from within the industry, it must come from outside if at all. That is why the proposed Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act is the only positive path to a future that horse racing aficionados would want to see.
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