This is an article that first appeared in the Paulick Report in two parts. I felt compelled to write this piece because so few people talk about what horse racing is getting right these days. There is a lot of good news to report and many reasons to feel excited about the future of horse racing. However, I couldn’t write about everything horse racing is doing right without also touching on what we need to do better. In the last third of this piece I dive a little deeper into some of the mistakes we’ve made over the years and discuss the need for cooperation. In case you missed this two part series, here it is in its entirety.
What’s Right and What’s Wrong in Racing
It’s time for racing to stop apologizing for who we are. Dating back to the rash of breakdowns that occurred in Southern California during the winter/spring of 2018 to 2019 that sent a ripple effect throughout the industry, we have all worn a cloak of contrite sheepishness adorned with remorse.
Santa Anita and the Stronach Group led the way on major industry reforms and the industry as a whole has come a long way in a short period of time. We are still far from perfect.
In this article, I will acknowledge the ways in which horse racing has improved by the things we’re doing right. I’ll then look at a couple of things we could simply be doing much better: what’s wrong.
In the third section of this piece, I’ll dive into the abysmal—things we have a long history of doing wrong. And, hopefully, impress upon readers the importance of cooperation. Let’s begin with what’s right.
What’s Right with Racing
Catastrophic breakdowns are down—way down. A quick look at the Equine Injury Database (EID) reveals that the risk of fatal injury declined 7.8% from 2019 to 2020 and that it has declined 29.5% overall since 2009. The 2020 rate of fatal injury is the lowest number since the EID started collecting data in 2009. That’s a pretty big deal.
These stats indicate that in 2020, 99.86% of racing starts at the racetracks participating in the EID were completed without a fatality. In other words, a catastrophic breakdown happened 0.14% of the time—less than a quarter of 1%. That they are truly a rare occurrence, is one of the things that makes them so difficult to completely eliminate.
When something happens frequently the events surrounding each occurrence can be studied and measured in great detail. But because catastrophic breakdowns are actually rare events, it makes it more difficult to study them in great numbers and form reliable conclusions about their causality. And even so, horse racing has managed to reduce these occurrences by nearly 30% in 11 years. The veterinarians, researchers, horse trainers, track maintenance crews, and anyone else who had a hand in this massive reduction deserve congratulations.
We are not done and zero is our goal. While no equine discipline has yet to be able to achieve zero, we are aiming high to hit our mark. Ten years of data show that not only are we aware, not only are we trying, but we are actually finding success and doing a really, really good job at it.
The formation of the Horse Racing and Safety Authority (HISA) is another step in this positive direction. There are pros and cons, supporters and detractors, and there are sure to be ups and downs. But horse racing obviously needed a hand in getting its act together and the HISA has the potential to offer much more good than bad.
This is the only topic that will appear in both the “what’s right” and “what’s wrong” sections. (Full disclosure, I’m on the board of directors for the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA) and have been on the advisory board since its inception in 2012, so I have witnessed their exponential growth and impact over the past nine years.)
- The Development of the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA) in 2012: Before the TAA there was no accreditation for aftercare facilities and there was little or no sharing of information and resources between these aftercare organizations. Transparency was hit or miss for potential buyers and adopters, and there was no required standard of care for individual organizations to maintain. Thanks to the work of the TAA, Thoroughbred racing now has a group of accredited aftercare organizations working together to support retired Thoroughbreds. The TAA now facilitates a monthly meeting where TAA accredited organizations get together on a largely attended Zoom call to share ideas and help each other, offering a constructive forum for each organization and for aftercare development.
- The Evolution of a First Exit From Racing: Thanks to placement programs in California, New York, South Florida, and Maryland, there is a direct path for horses leaving the track to enter into a TAA accredited aftercare organization, and due to the success of this program, it continues to expand and influence. For example, while Pennsylvania has a program that does not work directly with the TAA, there are 1,200 Pennsylvania horses that have to date, gone to TAA accredited organizations.
- The New York Racing Association (NYRA): 1.5% Aftercare Assessment in claiming races that is due at the time of the claim with 40% going to the TAA and 60% going to the New York Thoroughbred Horseman’s Association (NYTHA) OTTB program Take the Lead.1 This subject will also appear in what’s wrong with racing.
- Inventory and Tracking: Historically, where a horse ended up was anyone’s guess. With an active post-racing sales scene (this is where show and pleasure trainers put a little training into an OTTB and then move it on – otherwise known as “flipping”) a horse may have changed ownership several times over the course of a couple of years. As a part of the TAA program, the reporting of Thoroughbred Inventory to the TAA has allowed the TAA to trace more than 13,000 Thoroughbreds so far. These horses are given more oversight and future security than any horse ever offered in private sale.
- The Visibility and Development of New Careers for Thoroughbreds: We have long known Thoroughbreds could be good sport horses in disciplines such as eventing and show jumping but it turns out that, owing to their versatility and huge hearts, they can excel in everything from trail riding to various English disciplines such as dressage, western disciplines such as barrel racing, equine-assisted therapy programs, and everything in between.
Pat Cummings from the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation (RacingThinkTank.com) did such a masterful job of writing about what’s wrong with racing—and, importantly, how to fix it—that, rather than opine with my own thoughts, I will refer you to his “Wagering Insecurity” series here.
Cummings covers everything from the problems surrounding illicit drug use, wagering insecurity, an eroding fan base, grey and illegal betting markets, and more.
In addition to identifying the challenges, Cummings also makes recommendations of how the industry can improve. Two of my favorites:
Recommendation #1: The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority may be our only hope—if they are willing to take up the challenge. Of course, we’re already tasking them with the formation of uniform medication rules, uniform riding crop rules, and infallible drug testing.
Recommendation #2: Reporting all test results—as in all test results. As things are now, aside from the general assumption that the winner will report to the detention barn for a post-race test, we have no idea which horses have been tested—pre or post-race. Here’s the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation’s recommendation:
Every pre-race, post-race or out-of-competition sample should be reported publicly, soon after it is processed. The results should be reported regardless of the finding – most will be negative.
I like it.
I also love the recommendation for steward transparency and face-to-face discussions with jockeys and trainers. One of the stewards’ reports used in the article showed that a horse racing at Lingfield Park in Great Britain had visibly bled and lost a shoe. U.S. bettors never get that type of information.
Another stewards’ report from Hong Kong—on a horse named Golden Mission who turned in a very disappointing effort as the favorite—shows how much information is being given to the public elsewhere, and shows us, sadly, how little we’re getting in America. The Hong Kong stewards’ report was 135 words long. A US version, which really only comes from the Equibase chart callers, would simply say, “pulled up and walked-off”.
I have long believed that the Jockey Club should charge $1,000 to register a foal with something like $800 of it going directly into aftercare. No, this will not solve the problem of funding aftercare but it may discourage people from breeding and registering Thoroughbreds who are unlikely, at best, to be productive at the racetrack. Right now the Jockey Club charges $225 to register a foal with $25 of this going to aftercare, and while I applaud their participation, I believe they can do more.
The Jockey Club seems to be concerned that if they charge a higher fee for aftercare at the point of registration, then the breeder/owner will believe they’ve paid into aftercare and they no longer need to contribute. This is a valid point. The latest research from the TAA indicates that, on average, it costs about $644/month to care for an off-track Thoroughbred so the $800 in their bank account will not even cover two months of room and board. This is why everyone who participates in Thoroughbred horse racing must understand that funding aftercare is not a donation, it’s our obligation.
Referring back to the NYRA 1.5% Aftercare Assessment that is charged for each horse purchased through the claim box, why is NYRA the only group of tracks doing this?1 Every racetrack in the United States and Canada should be doing the same thing. Buyers and sellers are assessed at auction. Breeders are assessed through the mare fee they pay to the Jockey Club (that goes to the TAA). But the people who are playing the game predominantly through claiming are paying nothing. Meanwhile, it is the claiming horses who most often end up in need of an aftercare solution.
Aftercare also has a public relations problem. Many people think the problem is solved. It is not.
We talk about this a lot at the TAA. In the words of Stacie Clark, TAA Operations Consultant, “I now believe no amount of advertising or article writing seems to push the awareness button. In order for aftercare to succeed (and in turn help our industry and the image of our sport) we need commitment to awareness. In short, the discussion of aftercare has to matter more to the industry at large. It has to matter to everyone and it does not. There is a willful misconception that, because some aftercare is going on, it is enough. People are generally happy to want to believe that the horses leaving racing are going to be ok: out of sight out of mind.”
Again, the good news is that if the industry works together, we can solve these problems. In the next installment I’ll get into the need for industry-wide cooperation.
The Need for Cooperation
In the first two sections I talked about what’s right and what’s wrong with horse racing. It gets a little uglier here—before I venture into a plan for cooperation. Bear with me.
In the midst of reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, I was struck by a simple fact. Homo sapiens rose to the top of the food chain because of our unique ability to cooperate in numbers greater than a hundred. There is no other mammal that can maintain a colony, herd, or otherwise cohesive group once their numbers exceed a hundred or so members.
Yes, the ability to communicate helped. But lots of species have a language of their own, some that we understand to some extent, others that we know nothing about.
Fire helped. A lot. As did the advent of farming. But our rise to the top of the food chain some 50,000 years ago occurred because of our unique ability to cooperate in large numbers. Quoted from Sapiens:
Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.2
Until you get to the unique sapiens in American horseracing. I warned you that this was ugly.
Everyone has a stake in this, and, to our credit, each and every individual has tried to get others to see things their way. We’ve even formed several organizations over the years that were intended to bring everyone to the table in the spirit of cooperation. Sadly, it seems that each new entity that is formed spurs the formation of another special interest group to protect their agendas and assets.
Disparate groups: can we learn from benchmarks?
We have national organizations such as the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA), the Jockey Club, and the Thoroughbred Racing and Protective Bureau (TRPB). And then a national owners’ and breeders’ group (TOBA), along with regional owners’ and breeders’ groups in every racing jurisdiction (CTBA, KTOBA, NYTB, etc.). We have a national horsemen’s organization (HBPA) and then, of course, a regional HBPA in each jurisdiction. In 2019 we saw the formation of the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition, comprised of the Breeders’ Cup, Keeneland, Churchill Downs, Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, New York Racing Association, and the Stronach Group. I could go on.
All of these organizations have been formed with the intention of making horse racing better, getting people to the table, and/or protecting their own interests. To be sure, they have all achieved some minor or major successes. But we have not been willing to set our differences of opinions aside and agree upon a uniform set of rules and codes of conduct.
The Olympics and the International Olympic Committee
I’ve long been a fan of the recently concluded Olympic Games as they embody all that I love about sports. If the Olympics—an international competition, currently comprised of more than 200 countries and numerous sports—has managed to achieve a consistent level of success through cooperation, how is it possible that we cannot do the same? We are only one country, one sport. 38 different jurisdictions. 38 different sets of rules.
The modern Olympic Games began in 1896 after the formation of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1894, and today, the IOC remains the governing body of the Olympics. In terms of growth, the 1896 Olympics consisted of 14 participating nations whose athletes competed in 9 different sports. Today, more than 200 nations compete in 35 different sports, and there is one set of rules for each discipline.3
From country to country, these various disciplines were often played with at least slightly different rules and nuances. Yet, 200 nations have shown us that not only is it possible to agree on the rules of these 35 different sports, it’s also possible to agree on how they should be adjudicated.
Example: Drug Use
Therapeutic drug use has been a point of contention in both horse racing and the Olympics. The IOC handled it by allowing the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to create therapeutic drug use exemptions that are fairly straightforward. The three criteria that must be met to grant a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) are:
- the athlete would experience significant impairment to their health if the medication was withheld;
- the prohibited substance would not increase the athlete’s performance other than from restoring their health to normality;
- the athlete could not use a permitted alternative.4
If we had kept it that simple when it came to the use of furosemide (commonly referred to by its trade name, Lasix) this would not have turned into such a contentious issue in US racing. Three simple questions/criteria. Not really that complicated.
That’s sort of how it started with furosemide. In nearly every racing jurisdiction in which it was initially permitted a trainer had to prove that the horse had bled via an endoscopic exam and a subsequent veterinary report or state veterinary observation that the horse had bled substantially enough to require furosemide. And then somewhere along the way the floodgates opened. By the time the Horseracing Safety and Integrity Act was passed, something like 90% of the horses competing in United States horse racing were competing on Lasix.
The arguments for and against are, quite frankly, pointless. Yes, some horses need it. Yes, the use of Lasix was wildly out of control. No, we could not agree in numbers in excess of a hundred about how this needed to be handled.
And that is really the point: can we finally agree to agree/disagree in numbers over a hundred? We are at a watershed moment in horse racing where we have to decide if we will cooperate. Organized horse racing has existed since the beginning of recorded history. Unsanctioned horse racing first sprang up in the United States in 1665 and then in 1868, when the American Stud Book was first published became much more organized. Between 1665 and 1868 horse racing grew through cooperation, not division. The Breeders’ Cup, the brainchild of the late, great John Gaines, was birthed into fruition through cooperation and has grown by the same means.
The Roman Empire reigned for 500 years and no one alive during that time could have predicted its collapse at its peak. Horse racing has been taking a steady downward slide from its apogee for at least the past 20 years. In 2000 $14,321,000 were wagered on horse racing in the United States. After a steady decline over the past 20 years that number fell to $10,930,000 in 2020.5 Adjusting for inflation this is a 50% reduction in handle in 20 years–an unsustainable hemorrhage.
Getting back to the Olympic Games, without cooperation and the leadership of the International Olympic Committee and their agreed-upon set of standards, the Olympic Games would never have survived. They faced many challenges along the way, including two world wars, the Cold War boycotts, doping scandals, a terrorist attack in 1972, and the Covid pandemic postponing the 2020 games. But they have managed to cooperate and, at the end of the day, rise above the mayhem.
Horse racing cannot survive without leadership and cohesiveness either. The Horseracing Safety and Integrity Authority may not be the perfect answer but right now is not the time to let the unrealistic ideal of “perfect” get in the way of good. If we, the sport of horse racing and all of its participants, cannot cooperate we will fall the way of the wolves and the chimpanzees. Individually, we will survive. But our sport will not.
Notes and Reference
- After the first printing of this article, I learned that Canterbury Park in Minnesota also has a 1.5% aftercare assessment and a $16 per start fee–all going to aftercare. Good for you Minnesota, and thank you!
- Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. Page 25.
- Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olympic_Games
- Website Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4953490/
- Jockey Club website: http://www.jockeyclub.com/default.asp?section=FB&area=8
Donna is one of the most decorated female jockeys of all time. Now retired from race-riding, she is currently an award winning sports analyst and commentator for NBC, and the author of the book, “Inside Track: Insider’s Guide to Horse Racing”, which is now in its second printing. When she’s not on location, or in meetings, you can find her writing, reading, traveling and spending time with her husband Frank and her two dogs.