While the U. S. horse racing fraternity is known for its diversity of strongly-held views, responsible participants can agree on two critical needs–for advances in racetrack safety and a turnaround in public attitudes about the sport.

Based on analyses of over 1.5 million starts in The Jockey Club Injury Database, there are 2.1 equine fatalities per 1,000 starts on dirt, 1.74 on turf, and 1.03 on synthetics.  In less sterile terms, for every 1,000 starts, approximately two flesh-and-blood racehorses die from injuries incurred on dirt for every one perishing on synthetic surfaces.  Notwithstanding this mounting evidence, the trend in Thoroughbred racetracks in the United States is to replace synthetic tracks with dirt.

The Eight Belles fatality in the 2008 Kentucky Derby provoked an outpouring of (unfounded) accusations about the role played by medication in her breakdown. A 2012 New York Times expose on horse deaths in racing reinforced the notion that medication is routinely used to mask ailments; a March 20, 2014, Times article concerning an undercover operation by PETA said:  “Video clips and the report depicted the [Steve] Asmussen barn and the backsides of two of the United States’ most storied racetracks as places where horses were treated as commodities and given numerous joint injections as well as tranquilizers, painkillers and supplements.”

Little wonder that the Jockey Club-sponsored McKinsey and Company consumer study of 2011 found that “only 22% of the general public has a positive impression of Thoroughbred racing.”

Racing can be conducted on three types of surfaces and with or without race-day medication.  The accompanying table shows the six possible choices for combining racetrack surfaces with race-day medication regulations and the pros and cons of each.  The empirically least desirable format is running on a dirt surface and allowing race-day furosemide.  This pairing results in the most fatal breakdowns and does nothing to counter the appearance that racing is full of drugged animals.


  Race-day Furosemide Permitted

Race-day Furosemide Not Permitted  

Dirt Racing Surface Most fatal breakdowns,drug-dependent image Most fatal breakdowns,drug-free image
Turf Racing Surface Fewer fatal breakdowns than dirt, drug-dependent image Fewer fatal breakdowns than dirt, drug-free image
Synthetic Racing Surface Least fatal breakdowns,drug-dependent image Least fatal breakdowns, drug-free image


Racing on synthetics sans race-day medication is the best option for safety and public opinion.  It produces the least number of fatal breakdowns and conveys that racing strives to be a humane drug-free sport. These are the conditions for the globe’s richest race, the Dubai World Cup.

The predominant race paradigm in the United States is the one that is least capable of reducing horse fatalities and fostering a favorable public image. Doggedly adhering to the worst choice is not the logical way forward for a sport that McKinsey estimates has been losing fans at the rate of 4% annually and in which pari-mutuel handle has plummeted.  Inexplicably, the superior model of coupling synthetic surfaces with no race-day medication is rarely encountered in American racing.

Banning race-day medication and running most races on the safest surface is not a panacea for what ails racing, but it is a giant step in the right direction.

Copyright © 2014 Horse Racing Business


  1. The status quo apologists in racing will deny the accuracy of the Jockey Club data and the McKinsey findings. Thinking people embrace facts and act accordingly. Horse racing is committing a figurative suicide as apologists run the sport and won’t change. Your article is the most logical I’ve seen…too logical for the status quo ostriches.

  2. For the most part, people in horse racing overreact to negative news items like the NYT’s PETA undercover stunt instead of adopting synthetic surfaces and medication reforms that would improve the sport. Don’t see much hope because of resistance to change. Go down with the Titanic rather than change course. Very sad.