These are troubling days for the racing industry.
After an unusually high number of equine deaths at the Aqueduct winter inner-dirt meet versus the last three seasons, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office got involved and asked the New York Racing Association (NYRA) at its expense to form a committee to investigate. This was the first winter meet with Genting’s Resorts World Casino New York City operating video lottery terminals and electronic table games at Aqueduct, and the money had been pouring into state and NYRA coffers since the casino had opened for business on Oct. 28, a month before the winter meet started on Nov. 30.
Is there a connection between the huge increases in purses, especially in claiming races, with the spike in breakdowns? The recent New York Times front-page expose on the racing industry—and a shrill editorial promoting its story (which apparently is the first of a four-parter)—believes so, that greed has motivated what it insinuates are unscrupulous owners and trainers to race what the paper calls unfit horses on the dollar trail, leading to the increase in injuries and deaths.
It’s possible there’s a connection, though not as sensationally. Claiming activity at Aqueduct increased substantially as the purses went up. And when purses for claiming races get far out of whack from the claiming prices, as usually happens with the infusion of racino money, better horses claimed for higher prices can be dropped down the ranks without fear of financial loss to the owner because the money earned from the purse can offset the original claim price, or cost. Some of these horses dropping down the ladder may have issues, too—always a part of the game but perhaps more pronounced now.
Before the Times entered the arena with its story, HBO’s Luck—which had a storyline about a class horse with bowed tendons that had been dropped into a claimer—had been cancelled amid reports of three equine deaths during production, and PETA had parlayed that into a publicity knockdown that required a standing eight count.
NYRA, therefore, acted quickly and submitted a list of four for its new investigative body, the New York Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety, and the New York State Racing and Wagering Board approved the quartet—Jerry Bailey, Alan Foreman, Dr. Scott E. Palmer, and Dr. Mary Scollay— just as swiftly.
These four well-known and respected professionals will examine 20 deaths, 18 of them racetrack breakdowns. Over the last three inner-dirt meets at Aqueduct, the number of fatalities were 13 (2009), 12 (2010), and 11 (2011), respectively, as reported by Aqueduct to the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database; the investigation, therefore, is fully warranted, especially as horsemen hadn’t particularly complained about the track surface as a culprit for injuries.
In the meantime while we wait for the results of this investigation, parsing the Times data doesn’t quite establish the links between racinos and breakdowns that its authors—and the paper’s editors—assert.
Yes, the Times data indicates that the racino tracks of New Mexico and Arizona have a high number of “incidents per 1000 starts,” but the paper’s data also reveals that such tracks as Woodbine, Presque Isle Downs and Finger Lakes have very low figures while operating with the infusion of casino dollars.
It’s actually easier to establish a link between the tracks with the highest incidents per 1000 in the Times—Ruidoso, Sunland, Zia, Turf Paradise, and Los Alamitos—and quarter horse racing, which takes place at each of those tracks, than with racino dollars, no matter what the task force uncovers about Aqueduct.
Though the quarter horse tracks have the highest incidents per 1000 in the Times piece, there’s evidence elsewhere to suggest that breakdowns have increased at thoroughbred tracks. Take the NYRA meets, for example. Dr. George D. Mundy’s 1997 paper “Review of Risk Factors Associated with Racing Injuries” included some breakdown statistics on NYRA from 1983-1985 that put the figure for fatal breakdowns at 1.1 per 1000 starts. By NYRA’s own figures as reported to the Equine Injury Database, Aqueduct‘s fatalities per 1000 starts the last three years were 2.27, 2.22, and 2.30. The figures for Belmont were 1.95, 1.74, and 1.79 during the same time frame, and for Saratoga they were 0.98, 1.52, and 0.93.
None of these figures are exact apples-to-apples comparisons, but they give enough evidence to suggest a trend that is quite troubling, though not as sensationally so as the Times portrays.
[Note: The figures reported by tracks to Equine Injury Database are actual fatalities per 1000, whereas the figures published in the Times are "incidents per 1000."]