I have from the outset argued that death on the track is inevitable; while the numbers will fluctuate from meet to meet, track to track, state to state, death for the industry in the aggregate is unfailingly constant and, more or less, consistent (see my annual killed lists). Sure, there are things that can be done that would mitigate the killing somewhat, but because of horseracing’s very structure – how they’re bred, when they’re put into action, what they’re forced to do, how often they’re forced to do it, and how they’re generally treated – not in any significant way.

Still, it is easy for Racing to dismiss my cynicism – I, after all, “have an agenda” – not so easy, however, when said cynicism comes from one of their own. A recent Cronkite News article out of Arizona follows Dr. Verlin Jones, track veterinarian, as he makes his rounds at Turf Paradise. (Turf, you may recall, was hammered earlier this year for what was described as a double-the-national-average death rate in ’17-’18.) The journalist elicited Dr. Jones’ thoughts on two of the industry’s go-to “measures”: medication overhauls and veterinary vigilance. On the latter, Turf now requires a prerace exam for every starter (they used to only examine a sampling). Dr. Jones:

“I don’t really believe what I do in the morning (administering prerace exams) has a direct correlation on the deaths.” This bears repeating: The comprehensive prerace exam, one of the reformers’ magic bullets, is, says a 30-year veteran vet of the backsides, largely hollow. Imagine that.

Later, the article tackles the hot-button topic of drugs. Again, Dr. Jones:

“Right now in Arizona we have probably mid-level to low-level claimers. That population of horses comes with their own set of problems, so we deal with horses that have a higher level of injury… I think that right now these private practitioners on the back side, their hands are really, really handcuffed. When you’re dealing with this level of horse, they have a lot of problems. Those problems can be taken care of, but we have to have our full arsenal in order to do that.”

Then this: “I really feel like horses today are having to run in more pain. More pain leads to muscle fatigue, muscle fatigue leads to bone fatigue, bone fatigue leads to catastrophic breakdowns.”

In other words, less drugs may mean more dead horses, at least at the more pedestrian tracks – which is to say, the majority of tracks. Bullet two defused.

Finally, Dr. Jones addresses the supposed progress in the current season: “I can’t sit here and take credit and say that the reason we’re not having as many breakdowns is because we’ve done this or that, X, Y and Z. I honestly believe that the law of averages catches up with you, and the law of averages moved in our favor.” Exactly – fluctuating, but ever present. (To Dr. Jones’ point: From ’09-’18, with but one exception, Saratoga went in a perfect up-down pattern from one year to the next; deaths have ranged from 9-21, with an average, 14, almost right smack in the middle.)

One final thought: Let’s assume for the sake of argument that all those reforms were to actually make a difference and the killing (permanently) declines. What would such a scenario say about U.S. Racing? How should we think about people who could have been doing more to save horses all those years (decades) but chose not to? What to make of the good “horsemen(women)” who only now, with the heat red-hot, are taking dead animals seriously? Folks, if that’s not the definition of moral bankruptcy, I’m not sure what is. And I can’t for the life of me understand how anyone not directly profiting from such an industry could deem it worth preserving.

It’s not just the horses who are running scared:

“I am terrified that one horse – one we did five exams on, and the track was perfect, and everything was going good – could go down. We could be one or two accidents away – where nobody did anything wrong – from a referendum (to end the sport in California).” – Tim Ritvo, COO of Santa Anita owner The Stronach Group (Paulick Report, 3/31)

“I’m concerned about the publicity we’ve been getting. This is our March Madness. But we’re having the wrong kind of madness. We feel like we’re all under the gun.” – Bob Baffert, Hall of Fame trainer (The New York Times, 4/1)

“We know what the stakes are and understand that we might be the place that kills horse racing in California. Yes, we are worried…” – Ritvo (The New York Times, 4/1)

“The horse deaths have become a rallying point for the animal rights movement, which is particularly strong in California, where it would take 600,000 signatures on a petition to prompt a ballot initiative on whether horse racing should continue to exist.” – Joe Drape, writer and racing apologist (The New York Times, 4/1)

“I think it’s pretty depressing and fraught with danger for the sport.” – Stuart Janney III, Jockey Club chairman (The New York Times, 4/1)

“It has reached a tipping point. This is Santa Anita. It’s not like the Chattanooga Blue Devils; this is the New York Yankees or the L.A. Dodgers. Things happen here and they are going to get reported on. Social media has gone crazy.” – Jim Cassidy, president of the California Thoroughbred Trainers (Los Angeles Times, 4/1)

“This is going to have a ripple effect everywhere. Unfortunately, I’d like to say [a horse death] will never happen again, but it will. It seems with each one of these, [the outcry] gets stronger and stronger.” – Ritvo (Los Angeles Times, 4/1)

And lest we forget these from March 14 (FoxLA):

“[The Santa Anita meet has been] a nightmare for everyone connected with Racing…and we can’t seem to wake up.” – Rick Baedeker, executive director of the California Horse Racing Board

Baedeker, when asked if a Blackfish moment could happen there: “It could. It could.”

Baedeker, when asked about the future of California Racing: “Well, I think it’s at risk. I think it’s at risk.”

And from the Lies and Deceptions Department:

“I think it’s just an anomaly. Here we’ve been running for [the] last 40 to 50 years, the same whips, medication. Now all of a sudden, boom, we’re having problems.” – Baffert (Los Angeles Times, 4/1)

Nothing “all of a sudden” about this, Mr. Baffert, and you know it. Horseracing has always killed horses, but the public had always been – purposely, of course – kept in the dark. Now, with this website, there’s no excuse.

When I last wrote about the Jockey Club’s “Equine Injury Database” (EID), I pointed out, among other things, how grossly misleading it is. Today, I build on that a bit: In 2017, according to the EID, Saratoga Race Course, one of the minority of tracks that make fatalities public, incurred six deaths. Anyone at all familiar with this site knows that 2017 was an all-time – all-time meaning from 2009, the year the NYS Gaming Commission began disclosing deaths and, not coincidentally (outcry after Eight Belles), the first year of the EID – high for Saratoga, 21 dead horses. So, what gives?

For starters, the Jockey Club only reports raceday kills. The 11 racehorses felled in morning practice? Not applicable, says the JC. The two young, awaiting-next-race horses who died, likely very painfully, of colic? Disregarded. So, that’s 13 dead horses who didn’t merit a mention in the database. Fine. We already knew that. But at this point you may notice that 21 minus 13 leaves 8; the JC says 6. So, again, what gives?

Here are the 21 dead at Saratoga ’17:

Lakalas, May 28, “collapsed and died after breezing”
Queen B, July 6, “fractured leg…ambulanced to clinic – euthanized”
Wanztbwicked, July 22, “suspensory rupture – euthanized on track”
Angels Seven, July 28 (racing), “fractured leg – euthanized on the track”
Howard Beach, July 29, “fractured leg…euthanized”
Positive Waves, July 29, “fractured cannon [and] sesamoids – euthanized”
Brooklyn Major, July 31 (racing), “collapsed and died after the finish of the race”
Marshall Plan, August 2, “fractured condylar – euthanized”
Fall Colors, August 3 (racing), “horse fell…died on track from trauma”
Munjaz, August 3 (racing), “took bad step…vanned off – euthanized”
Lakeside Sunset, August 5, “fractured leg – euthanized”
Unbroken Chain, August 6 (racing), “suffered a fatal musculoskeletal injury”
Duquesne Whistle, August 7, “was euthanized for abdomen colic”
Sweetneida, August 11 (racing), “took bad step, fractured sesamoids – euthanized”
Meteoroid, August 16 (racing), “[multiple] fractures – euthanized on track”
Sayonara Rose, August 17 (racing), “was euthanized on the track for leg fracture”
Travelin Soldier, August 19, “fractured leg – euthanized”
That Mr. P, August 26, “being treated for acute colic without resolution – euthanized”
Aggie’s Honor, August 31, “fractured cannon – euthanized”
Somekindasexy, September 18, “fractured both sesamoids – euthanized”
Roberta Brooks, October 14, “fractured cannon – euthanized”

Now, I can only surmise that the two missing from the Jockey Club’s accounting are the two who perished in steeplechase races. Yet, both (Fall Colors and Meteoroid) were Thoroughbreds, both, obviously, died on those same hallowed Saratoga grounds, both races pari-mutuel. In other words, there was no rational reason to exclude them. Except that doing so – along with excluding training kills – helps make the Saratoga kill-ratio better, and hence the Jockey Club’s (industry’s) overall national ratio.

And this was no isolated incident:

2016 – the Gaming Commission lists 6 Saratoga racing kills; the EID, 5
2015 – the Gaming Commission lists 3 Saratoga racing kills; the EID, 2
2014 – the Gaming Commission lists 8 Saratoga racing kills; the EID, 6

The evidence is clear: The Jockey Club is not only under-reporting all kills/deaths – no training, no stall – but it is also under-reporting racing kills, rendering (again) its vaunted “Equine Injury Database” worthless. Read my Killed Lists instead.

The Albany Business Review ran a piece yesterday on the shortage of H-2B visas (for seasonal workers) and how said shortage will impact the upcoming NYRA meets. Says star trainer Todd Pletcher: “This shortage will have devastating consequences on our business and on the racing season as a whole.” First, the obvious, any time “devastating consequences” and “on racing” appear in the same sentence ’tis good. But it was a quote from another famous trainer that really caught my eye.

In bemoaning the fact that, for the most part, Americans are unwilling to do the work that these foreign temps do, Gary Contessa said this: “You have to work with animals that spend the better part of the day trying to put you in the hospital.” Well, Mr. Contessa, if indeed these animals are “difficult” or even at times a bit dangerous, there’s ample reason. How do you suppose your psychology would be affected if you were to be locked in a tiny space for over 23 hours a day – deprived of your autonomy, removed from your kind, your nature utterly negated? But more revealing is the general attitude this comment speaks to. Which calls to mind this post from 2014:

For four months last year [2013], PETA had an undercover investigator working for highly successful trainer Steve Asmussen – at Churchill Downs and Saratoga Race Course, no less. What follows are some of the investigation’s highlights:

Trainer Scott Blasi, Asmussen’s top lieutenant: “Fuck these horses. These motherfuckers…these cocksuckers. There’s always something wrong with ’em.”

“You ought to see these limping motherfuckers I see this son [of] a bitch out here [Saratoga] jogging every day.”

“You could not believe how many [horses] they hurt and kill before they ever even get to the racetrack.”

Farrier working on 5-year-old Nehro, one of Asmussen’s charges: “That’s all missing! His foot is a little bitty nub. …he lost Z-bars on both feet multiple times until he had bloody holes in the bottom of his feet.”

“He doesn’t even have a pulse in this one, and he’s barely got one in the… Stick your thumb in there. Right there in that frog. …No, it’s been like that for three months…it rotted.” Blasi: “…listen…I know the fucker hurts.” Farrier: “Let me show you this hole. This is treacherous. We’ve tried superglue in that hole.”

Blasi, to Nehro: “Quit being such an asshole. …Aggravating son of a bitch.” A few days after this exchange, Nehro died of colic. Blasi: “I have seen a lot of shit. That is the most violent fucking death I have ever seen.”

Blasi on “shockwave therapy”: “Shockwave therapy is, like, it dead[ens] – it kills pain. That’s why you can’t do it close to [race day]. ‘Cause people used to do it like two or three days out, and then these motherfuckers go out there and snap their fucking leg off.” Then this: “It fucking hurts like hell. I can’t believe them fucking sons a bitches can take it.”

Blasi on electric shockers, which are used for “motivation”: “I’d tell [jockey Ricardo Santana], ‘You got the maquina [shocker]?’ ‘Boss, I got the maquina.'”

Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens: “So, long story short, I win the race…and I reach over to pull this off, and I, I shock the shit out of myself [audible laughing around the table].”

Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas: “Well, we used to go behind the gate at Ruidoso. And it was just like it was a full-blown orchestra. Zzz. Zzz. Zzz. Zzz. Everybody had one [shockers]. Everybody had one.”

Blasi, after losing an underperformer – a “rat” – to a claim: “I could just do a fucking cartwheel right now.”

This is horseracing:

In the wake of the assault of Accolade at Delaware Park last Thursday, his owner, Glenn Fagan, gave this statement to WDEL:

“As the owner of ACCOLADE, the 3yr old gelding that was beaten in the head by the assistant starter on Thursday in the gate, I am disgusted at what I witnessed. I am bothered by the fact that the head starter after witnessing this attack didn’t pull my horse from the race or at the very least make him a non starter for all the people that had wagered on him. The time, effort and patience needed to have your horse ready to compete at a top level on a specific day and race is difficult, not to mention expensive. The one factor that people can’t handicap, is an employee of Delaware Park taking his frustrations out on your horse.

I am happy to see the outrage and indignation that this matter has received on social media. My 14 yr old daughter and I travel 50 minutes each weekend to feed Accolade his favorite snack, peeled red delicious apples and baby carrots. She was in tears watching our horse getting beaten over and over and over and over and over again. She didn’t sleep Thursday night, as the image of the abuse replayed in her mind. …If this type of behavior is routine in the racing business, then I must rethink my participation in the sport of kings. I am not a litigious person, but the lack of empathy on the behalf of Delaware Park is intolerable.”

While Mr. Fagan seems a bit more concerned with his (and the bettors’) monetary interests here, there appears to be at least some anger in how his horse was treated (though I’d wager that has more to do with his daughter’s feelings than his own). But then, he offered this followup to the station:

“When I made my statement to you I was extremely upset over the incident that occurred at Delaware Park on Thursday. My trainer, Abel Castellano had not informed me that upper management, John Mooney, had not only reached out to him, but had sent the State Veterinarian to check on the welfare of Accolade as well. Though I personally have not heard anything from Delaware Park, I’m glad to know that they were concerned for the safety of my horse.

Abel had also informed me that the assistant starter involved in the incident, someone that he had known well and respected, had apologized to him as well. I understand that this man has worked for Delaware Park for some 20 years in an extremely dangerous job and a moment of frustration shouldn’t ruin his life. Able informed me that he is the best and most experienced starter on the team.”

So, this animal-abuser (who should have been arrested) is acquitted (in Fagan’s mind) because he apologized and works “an extremely dangerous job.” So much for “rethinking his participation in The Sport of Kings.” Look, since buying Accolade on March 23 of this year, Fagan has had him “For Sale” twice – April 19 at Gulfstream, May 27 at Pimlico. And that, people, is all you need to know about how he truly views these animals – the “apples and carrots” drivel aside, just things to be used. But even more telling is this: A man who punched – punched – a horse four times in the head is, according to the horse’s trainer, “the best on the team.” You can’t make this stuff up.

Accolade, before and after Thursday’s race…

credit: WDEL

credit: WDEL

(full WDEL article)