The horse racing industry is reeling from an unusually high number of deaths in the two month long Del Mar meet. Del Mar, dubbed "Where the Surf Meets the Turf" is widely accepted as one of the most beautiful race tracks in the world but it has a history of horse fatalities including 14 this year (at time of writing). The track switched to a synthetic surface and a new turf course a few years back to try to stave off some of the catastrophic injuries but it clearly hasn't worked as injuries have risen. And many are pointing to deficiencies in the turf as being the main culprit in the rise of horse deaths. But it's not just Del Mar that has seen a spike in horse deaths. Saratoga has seen 9 horses die this year and several other tracks have seen a spike in fatalities. And while the horse racing industry may be unwilling to seriously address it stating it's a part of sport and has been an issue for over a century, to new horse goers it is a turnoff.
I recall taking my wife (then girlfriend) to the horse races for the first time in 1991 to watch the Canadian International at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto when one of Canada's best horses, Izvestia, broke down during the race and was euthanized almost immediately afterward. Since that day she says she can't watch a horse race and a potential fan and bettor was lost to the industry. Similarly many parents refuse to take their children to the races for the exact same reason. I was talking recently about the issue to a trainer in the industry and his response was pretty callous and inane – "humans break their legs while running all the time or suffer sprains. Just look what happened to Mary Decker. Yet no one was blaming the Olympics for her broken leg." What he failed to mention of course is that when humans break their legs they don't have to be euthanized, plus of course humans have the ability to decide for themselves whether to run. And humans can verbally express when they aren't feeling well. Horses on the other hand, can only express that point through their actions but those actions will be futile if the pain is masked. Nevertheless the question of why horse racing is becoming so dangerous for horses and jockeys had to be raised and I thus spoke to three horsemen, one from the U.S., one from England and one from Australia to get their opinions. They pointed to four main factors for the increase in breakdowns – medication, surface, training and breeding.
The main factor in all three of their viewpoints is medication. Until the 1970s medication to help a horse during a race was absolutely forbidden, but in recent years the restrictions have been lifted. Lasix, a diuretic which has been use to stop horses from bleeding during races was the first drug to be introduced in certain parts of the U.S. and New York was the last jurisdiction in North America to lift the ban on its use in 1995. Prior to the use of Lasix, horses that bled three times in their career were banned from competing for good. In Australia, South Africa and Hong Kong that rule still exists and while there is no similar ban in the UK, Lasix is still not permitted to be used. While the drug has been useful in stopping bleeding it also masks other issues horses may have, which is actually a reason the Olympics disallows athletes to use it. Nick Zito admitted to Thoroughbred Daily News that Lasix is a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde drug because it allows horses to race, when without it they may not be able to, but is also causing horses to run less frequently because it takes them so long to recover after using the diuretic. At the same time he also doesn't want to see it banned for good because he believes many horses wouldn't be able to run at all without it which would lead to field shortages, track closures and industry layoffs. Of course that's always the debate – the safety of horses and jockeys or the profitability of the industry.
But as concerning as Lasix is the bigger culprit is Phenylbutazone (bute). Bute is an analgesic pain killer with effects similar to ibuprofen. It helps to reduce inflammation and acts as a mild pain reliever for muscle aches and pains. Many trainers give it to their horses to help alleviate any slight aches or pains before a race and all jurisdictions in the U.S. now allow horses to be given a single dose of bute 24 hours before a race. The short half-life of the drug ensures it will be out of the horse's system by race time. The problem with Bute is that it allows horses that are lame to race and as such eventually can lead to a breakdown. In fact, before Bute was allowed in horse racing in the U.S. the average number of breakdowns was one every 15 days and after its use was permitted it increased to one every 4 days. Plus a study by Louisiana State University a few years back showed that the use of bute actually decreased the number of times a horse was able to run in a year because the drug leads to so many other complications including gastric ulcers and liver damage. Trainers argue that Bute is needed and the fact it is out of the horse's system ensures that a horse will not run lame, but trainers have been known to take liberties and the result is catastrophic. In fact Rick Dutrow was suspended for 10 years after he was found to overmedicate his horses with Lasix and Bute as well as using clearly banned drugs like xylazine (a sedative). In fact the horseman from Britain told me that he refused to even follow the Breeder's Cup until a ban on Lasix and Bute was put in play because he finds the practice of allowing potentially sick horses to race as being barbaric. Ironically, horse racing fatalities in the UK are even higher than in North America, although the main reason for that is steeplechase and hurdles racing, which is rare in the U.S. but common in Europe. Studies show that the risk factor for injury from hurdle racing is 800 times greater than flat racing and there have been calls in Europe to ban the practice for that reason. But that's to be discussed in another article.
The second factor most point to is the racing surface. In Europe and Australia all racing was run on the turf until tracks like Wolverhampton, Kempton Park and Geelong put in a synthetic racing surface. No jurisdiction overseas was willing to run horses on dirt claiming it was a dangerous surface but the synthetic surfaces offered the advantages of dirt racing without the danger since they did not become so hard or soggy in cases of heavy rain or drought. And in fact the use of synthetic surfaces has resulted in a slight decrease in the horse injury rate although some synthetic surfaces like the ones at Woodbine and Arlington seem to produce fewer injuries than the ones in hotter climates. But many tracks absolutely refuse to switch from dirt surfaces and the statistics are clear that races run on bogged down dirt tracks or on tracks that have had no moisture produce much higher injuries than in good weather. The Australian horsemen I spoke to was adamant that this in his view was the main culprit for horse fatalities. "Try running a mile on heavy rain soaked mud or on a sand packed beach that has had no rain and you'll realize just how straining it is on the muscles and joints."
Similarly turf courses that get no moisture are just as dangerous. The Australian horseman told me that running on a turf course with no moisture is like running on a highway without shoes. He also made it clear though that in Australia the tracks will cancel race cards very fast if the turf or synthetic surface is not ideal for racing. "It's always been a wave of contention here that courses like Flemington will cancel major cards because the turf is too damp when many jockeys will say it isn't that bad. But in Australia the industry is more concerned about horse and jockey safety than it is about completing a card on the date it is set out. In the U.S., on the other hand, they rarely if ever cancel cards due to race conditions and if the turf is just unusable they'll likely just move a race from the turf to the dirt or all-weather track. And that causes other issues because you end up with horses running on surfaces they aren't prepared for. " There's no doubt that the lack of rain at Del Mar has created a turf course that is very hard and unfortunately it seems Del Mar has not adapted to somehow ensure proper moisture in the turf course.
The third factor that most point to is training. While injuries during races are an issue what most fail to realize is that most of the injuries take place in training. In June an exercise rider was killed at Woodbine when a horse he was exercising suffered a heart attack, crashed through a fence and landed on him. And unfortunately it's not that uncommon. Trainers know they have to exert their horses to get them ready for races and so they often train them too often, too hard or too early in life resulting in horses that simply can't stand the strain of the training. Add to that the fact that trainers aren't subject to the same rules in training as they are for races themselves and trainers will often take many liberties during the training exercise with respect to medication, creating a ticking time bomb when a horse actually does race. As one trainer at Woodbine once opined to me "a good trainer is one who lives by all the rules and develops a horse that will provide a profit to its owner but a great trainer is one who will do whatever it takes to make the horse a superstar. And one year at the top is better than three years in the middle." And while most trainers realize that horses are flesh and bone animals subject to the same physical restraints as humans, they also deem them as goods that must be maximized for their livelihood to continue.
The last factor is breeding. All three of the horsemen I spoke to suggested that horses are just becoming too fast for their own good. The British horseman just shook his head when he hears people talk about which horse will become the first to break the 1:07 mark for the Breeder's Cup Sprint. Right now the record is held by Midnight Lute who won the sprint in 1:07.08 and last year Secret Circle won in 1:08.73. It wasn't that long ago that the best horse would run 6 furlongs in 1:11 and the average allowance horse would run 6 furlongs in about 1:13. "Horses aren't supposed to run that fast but the notion that faster is better is creating horses that just are too fast for their own good. When Eillo won the first Breeder's Cup sprint in 1:10.2 was it really any less exciting for the owners or for the fans than when Midnight Lute ran the same distance over 3 seconds faster? If horses weren't forced to run those types of times there's no doubt horse racing would be safer." In that regard, many still point to Eight Belles who collapsed after the finish line in the 2008 Kentucky Derby and had to be euthanized on track. The industry and animal protection agencies pointed to the trainer, breeder and jockey for the horse's death but ultimately put the main blame on the breeding. Not long after the race Sally Jenkins, a Washington Post writer penned, "She ran with the heart of a locomotive, on champagne-glass ankles." Horses that once were known for sturdy legs now have paper thin ones that can easily break with too much exertion. In any case if horses continue to be forced to run beyond their capabilities the results have to be catastrophic.
Horse racing is clearly at a moral fork in the road. The industry realizes there is a problem with horse fatalities but they also know they need to fill fields. The industry has tried to address the issue by putting in measures in 2011 to toughen rules of the 1978 Interstate Horse Racing Act but most agree that the measures have not gone far enough. And statistics speak for themselves. Younger people have turned away from the sport for many reasons including the number of horse breakdowns. The number of deaths this year at Del Mar is proof that measures have to be strengthened even more. Without doing something the industry will certainly become obsolete in the near future in the United States.