Times expose notwithstanding, troubling figures at NYRA

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.”]

Times expose notwithstanding, troubling figures at NYRA

7 thoughts on “Times expose notwithstanding, troubling figures at NYRA

  1. Observer says:

    The Times use of “incidents” is flawed data, is it not? An incident could have been a DNF, lost rider, bled, eased or broken equipment as well as a “broke down” comment from the charts. Clearly most of these chart comments are not fatalities. Too many people believe if it’s in the paper it has to be true. The Times has a recent history of distorting or making up “the truth”. I wish the Times had written this story in conjunction with you.

  2. Bob McAvoy says:

    Hi Sid,
    Are any of these horses insured ? I would be courious to see if the horses breaking down and then put down were covered by insurance claims. We need to do a better job of preventing unsound horses from starting in a race. The public once again is the person being taken advantage of. What about the jockeys ? They are also caught right in the middle of all this. The public is only losing their money but the jockeys can lose their lives.

  3. Greg says:

    I’m obviously not trying to defend breakdowns or ignore negligent or unscrupulous behavior. But I agree with Observer that the data seemed to lump lots of other incidents, at least some significant percentage of which are surely irrelevant, into “incidents” that imply breakdowns in order to inflate the numbers.

  4. I think the data was OK as “incidents,” not to be confused with hard numbers of fatalities, but my biggest issue w the piece was its sensational tack and it’s lack of full understanding of subject matter. Except for Joe Drape, I doubt the other four writers knew much about racing, and they were attempting something for which they were seriously unqualified.

  5. I completely agree. Unfortunately, the fact that most major racetracks take great precautions to insure the safety of horses is not a very sexy story.

    Aqueduct races horses that come from bloodlines that are more fragile. Belmont and Saratoga race sturdier stock. This is what accounts for 80% of
    the discrepancy in breakdowns between the tracks. Some bloodlines are more injury prone than others.

  6. Jim Culpepper says:

    Issues concerning the effects of diuretics and painkillers are profusely published, as are arguements over pedigree. It is absurd that stock from the phosphatic limestone districts of the bluegrass, the Nashville basin, and New Market etc., are touted for sound bone, and then routinely dosed with chemicals which remobilize bone calcium with resultant osteopenia. Even so, horsemen who have forgotten more than I know, point to dangerously high stirrup placement in particular, and and lack of horsemanship in general as being as much a cause as drugs for these problems. This is part and parcel to the industrial specialization of skills and loss of folk wisdom, such that a sidehill farmer a century ago, had infinitely more horse sense than most of the hobbyists and mercenaries of today and nevermind the shrill polemicists who shriek for attention like jealous tots.

  7. Well said Jim.. well said.. todays short riding irons is ridiculous, did you see that French jockey standing almost on the horse’s back before the finish of the World Cup.. if he had fallen off, he would have brought down half of the field.

    The Epsom stewards had already fined him for doing that show of nonsense in the Derby.

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