Experts in racetrack surfaces are searching for answers to why Santa Anita has had 21 horse fatalities since late 2018. Management has closed the track in the meantime amidst a plethora of global media scrutiny and both bewilderment and outrage among the public.

Periodically, a rash of horse fatalities occurs at a racetrack and draws attention from mainstream media and people who don’t normally follow horse racing. Experts are brought in, the problem resolves itself, and media attention wanes until the next episode crops up at Aqueduct, Del Mar, Santa Anita, or some other high-profile racetrack. The larger question about causality goes unanswered.

I try to be analytical on Horse Racing Business and stick to making statements with a factual basis. Though I don’t have the very detailed information about horse fatalities I need to make sweeping assertions about why they occur on American racetracks, I have enough data to at least identify areas of major concern. A comparison of British and North American fatality statistics offers insight in this regard.

According to the British Horseracing Authority, in flat and jump races over the past five years, the number of horse fatalities in Great Britain—and the percentage they represent of all horses that ran in races—are:

2018 202 horse fatalities = 0.22% of all starters
2017 167 = 0.18%
2016 171 = 0.19%
2015 156 = 0.18%
2014 189 = 0.22%

The relatively high percentage of fatalities in jump races inflates these figures. The jump-race fatalities from 2014 through 2018 averaged 0.56%. Thus if the jump-race fatalities are taken out of the overall calculations, the fatality toll for flat races is dramatically lower:

2018 76 fatalities (in flat races) from 58,684 starters
2017 42 fatalities from 59,349
2016 37 fatalities from 57,908
2015 20 fatalities from 56,717
2014 45 fatalities from 55,193

In percentage terms, fatalities in British flat races average less than one-tenth of one percent of all starters.

By contrast, statistics from the (American) Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database depict that from 2014 through 2017 (2018 data are not yet available) about one percent of all starters were fatalities (imputed from fatalites per 1,000 starts stats).

2017 506 horse fatalities from 50,651 starters
2016 497 fatalities from 52,049 starters
2015 535 fatalities from 53,365 starters
2014 649 fatalities from 55,198 starters

(While North American statistics include jump racing, these races account for a very small percentage of all the races run.)

British horse racing (flat) is safer than North American racing by a large margin. Two reasons that could explain much of the difference are evident. First, the preponderance of British races are run on turf, which is a demonstrably safer surface than the prevalent dirt surface in North America. The Equine Injury Database shows, for example, that fatalities per thousand starts on turf for 2017 were 1.36 versus 1.74 for dirt. Fatalities on synthetic surfaces were lowest of all at 1.1 per thousand starts. Second, the British are much stricter on drug policy and do not permit any medication on race day.

The American racing industry has mostly resisted synthetic surfaces–with Del Mar, Keeneland, and Santa Anita actually uninstalling their synthetic tracks in spite of the surface’s superior safety record. Medication reform, most notably a provision for a national oversight body and a ban of drugs on race day, has also been fought against by powerful interests.

An outsider looking in on the racing industry in North America, especially the United States, would be left to wonder whether it really intends to improve safety conditions for horse and rider…or just says it does. Yet if progess is not made on reform, and soon, there might not be an industry left.

Copyright © 2019 Horse Racing Business


A couple of weeks ago, I watched with amazement as an IBM computer, Project Debater, held its own debating a human in a live streaming event put on by Intelligence Squared US, a nonprofit debate-hosting company. Harish Natarajan, who was a grand finalist in the 2016 World Debating Championships, pitted his formidable skills against IBM’s Project Debater, which was programmed to speak in a female voice.

It was intriguing to see how well the artificial intelligence of Project Debater performed by calling on the newspaper and magazine articles in its own database and then synthesizing the information; it did not have access to the internet. Moreover, neither Project Debater nor Mr. Natarajan knew the subject of the debate until 15 minutes before it began (“Should we subsidize preschools?”).

While the studio audience for the debate thought that Mr. Natarajan was more persuasive, Project Debater did very well and its responses closely resembled those of a human. In the not-too-distant future, artificial intelligence will become much more sophisticated and will disrupt entire industries and ways of doing things. (Stephen Schwarzman, the founder of renowned investment firm Blackstone, recently donated an initial gift of $350 million to M.I.T to establish a College of Computing that will focus on artificial intelligence.)

Wealth management companies, for instance, are already offering low-cost services based on computer recommendations for portfolios. Another example: A recent article in the Wall Street Journal said that Derby City, Louisville, Kentucky, was one of the ten most vulnerable places in the United States to having human workers replaced by robots. Louisville has a huge UPS facility and a large appliance-manufacturing operation, and these kinds of businesses can be robotized. 

Human activities that artificial intelligence should be able to improve on in horse racing are handicapping/betting, bloodstock matings, yearling selection, and training. Artificial intelligence will make present-day computer applications in these endeavors look primitive. One of the advantages of artificial intelligence is that it can recommend decisions and solutions to humans that are fact-based and free of emotion. In addition, machine learning can make corrections based on experience.

Whether betting with the aid of artificial intelligence will be as much fun as the old-fashioned way is another matter. And don’t look for smart robots to replace racehorses and jockeys, at least not until computer-driven cars are perfected.

Copyright © 2019 Horse Racing Business


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.