By Earle I. Mack
“They are putting the very survival of the sport at risk.” Those are the words of the Jockey Club chairman Stuart Janney III. He is absolutely right. Thoroughbred racing, the sport I love dearly and have been so passionate about for over 50 years as an owner, breeder, regulator, administrator, philanthropist, and advocate, is in a crisis as mounting number of horse deaths have shaken the public consciousness.
According to the Equine Injury Database, there were almost 500 horse racing fatalities in the United States last year. That number still does not include the hundreds more that die training every year. It is impossible to know for certain, but it is estimated there are more than 2,000 deaths from horse racing and training every year. New York Racing Association president David O’Rourke has testified that equine fatality rates at the member tracks in the state have fallen to 1.2 deaths per 1,000 starts last year, which is down from 2.0 deaths per 1,000 starts a decade ago. But even in a sport that races close to 50,000 times every year, this number is unacceptable and something must be done to lower it dramatically.
The crisis has been exacerbated by the multiple tragedies Santa Anita Park, which has just suffered the 27th death since December, sparking the rage of animal rights groups and heightening the concern of regulators, jockeys, owners, and the public. To its credit, the Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita Park, has put in place groundbreaking reforms. Belinda Stronach herself has led the effort to enact horse racing safety reforms in California in concert with the Thoroughbred Owners of California and is advocating for change not just in California but across the country.
The Los Angeles Times editorial board joined Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California in calling for the racing season to end at Santa Anita Park. The newspaper noted the alarming fact that horses running in races in the United States are “five times more likely to suffer a catastrophic injury” than horses running in races at international venues and that it is “unacceptable and must immediately change.”
The sport of horse racing is at a dangerous crossroads, and this is a loud wakeup call. Industry leaders must take notice or risk being swept away in a flash flood of public opinion. The bandwagon can pick up speed quickly overnight, but we can slow it down and stop it by taking decisive action now. Americans will no longer tolerate the skyrocketing number of horse deaths, especially if they perceive callous indifference from the industry.
Today, 38 states with 38 governing bodies, 38 regulating entities, and many different lobbying groups, each with their own agendas, oversee and influence the thoroughbred racing and breeding industry. Each state has to contend with a variety of lobbyists and advocates, from owners and breeders to jockeys and operators, to run an industry that is an important source of jobs and revenues. It is a $10 billion industry in New York alone.
The result is a patchwork of rules and regulations, particularly as it relates to the use of performance enhancing drugs. Many owners and breeders have believed that these drugs artificially enhance performance in the short term, but they impact breeding in a manner that contributes to an increase in breakdowns in the long term. Only recently, in response to the rash of deaths at Santa Anita Park this season and with the leadership of Belinda Stronach, have the major tracks now agreed to phase out certain performance enhancers. The New York Racing Association has even gone further and to its credit will adopt a vastly revised and improved code of ethics, yet there are still some track operators who have resisted reform.
Earlier this year, lawmakers in Congress introduced bipartisan legislation backed by the Jockey Club and others in the industry. The Horseracing Integrity Act would create a uniform national set of drug rules as well as greatly improved standards for drug testing race horses. The industry desperately needs a governing body to ensure transparency and consistency in the medical treatment and health of race horses. The passage of this legislation would help to restore the faith of our fans.
I would also urge the industry to take a deeper look at horse racing surfaces. According to a national safety review in 2009, the risk of fatal injury on turf was about one-half of that on all-weather racing surfaces. The relative risk of biaxial sesamoid fractures on all-weather surfaces was almost 10 times higher than the risk on turf. It is high time for the sport to make some significant changes. Unifying the fragmented drug rules between the states and nations and making investments to improve racing surfaces in this country are the right steps.
Not only will this be safer for horses and jockeys, but it will increase the number of quality racing thoroughbreds from Europe and Asia that compete in the United States, boosting the confidence of the American race fan. That confidence is slipping, and our favor is waning, so the time for action is now. In our hyperconnected world today, traditions as old as America itself can be wiped out virtually overnight. We cannot let that happen to the tradition of horse racing.
Earle Mack is a former chairman of the New York State Racing Commission and a former board member of the New York Racing Association. He served as an adviser on the thoroughbred industry to Governor Mario Cuomo and Governor George Pataki and is now a current member of the Jockey Club.
Read the full post from Earle I Mack on The Hill: https://thehill.com/opinion/campaign/447410-keep-tradition-of-horse-racing-alive