AP finds 5,000 horse deaths since ’03
By Associated Press - June 16, 2008
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Thoroughbred racetracks in
the U.S. reported more than three horse deaths a day last year
and 5,000 since 2003, and the vast majority were put down after
suffering devastating injuries on the track, according to an
Associated Press survey.
Countless other deaths went unreported because
of lax record keeping, the AP found in the broadest such review
The catastrophic breakdown of filly Eight
Belles at the Kentucky Derby last month made the fragility of a
half-ton horse vivid for the millions watching, but the AP found
that such injuries occur regularly in every racing state. Tracks
in California and New York, which rank first and sixth in
thoroughbred races, combine to average more than one
thoroughbred death for every day of the year.
Questions about breeding, medication,
synthetic surfaces versus dirt and other safety issues have
dogged the industry for some time, and a congressional panel has
asked key players in the sport to testify this week about its
direction, particularly the influence of steroids.
The AP compiled its figures from responses to
open records inquiries sent to the organizations that govern the
sport in the 29 states identified by Equibase Co., a
clearinghouse for race results, as having had at least 1,000
thoroughbreds start a race last year.
Arkansas, Michigan, Nebraska said their
organizations don’t track fatalities at all, and only one of
Florida’s three main thoroughbred tracks provided numbers. There
were wide differences among the other states in what types of
deaths are monitored and how far back the records go.
"Nobody really knows how big of a problem it
is," said Rick Arthur, California’s equine medical director.
"They just know it’s a big problem."
When a horse breaks a leg — let alone two, as
Eight Belles did — often the only choice is to euthanize the
animal. A thoroughbred’s bones are thinner than most breeds.
Usually it’s not possible for the horse to lie down for long
periods because that could disrupt the blood flow to the
arteries in the lower limb, causing an extremely painful hoof
infection called laminitis.
Barbaro, who won the Kentucky Derby in 2006,
broke down in the Preakness and was euthanized with laminitis
several months later after a gallant effort to save him.
Despite the regularity of such breakdowns and
the money involved in the sport, no one is certain how many
horses are lethally injected on the nation’s tracks each year.
The Jockey Club, which registers all North American
thoroughbreds, did not know of another comprehensive,
state-by-state tally of fatalities at tracks before the AP’s,
said Bob Curran, a Jockey Club vice president.
Larry Bramlage, the on-call veterinarian at
Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., who made the grim
announcement that Eight Belles had been euthanized after the
Derby, said fatality numbers don’t seem to be dropping, despite
major medical advancements. To Bramlage, that suggests racing
injuries are becoming more frequent because vets are already
pulling the most injury-prone horses before post time.
"We’re able to pick them up better, with
digital X-rays, bone scans and MRIs, which give us the
information we need to take those horses out of training,"
Bramlage said. "In spite of that fact, we’re not denting the
total number of deaths."
California officials became alarmed in 2005
when the number of thoroughbred racing deaths there spiked by
nearly 50 percent from just two years earlier. Last year, 314
horses — 261 of them thoroughbreds — died at California’s
tracks, including those hurt in training or barn accidents, and
a few that suffered other injuries or medical complications.
"Just seeing the totals and the recurrent
theme, it’s eye-opening," said Bon Smith, assistant director of
the California Horse Racing Board.
Beginning this year, California has mandated
that all its major tracks replace their dirt surface with a
synthetic mixture found in some studies to be safer for horses
While California’s thoroughbred fatalities are
nearly triple those reported by any other state, its warm
weather and bounty of tracks make it the nation’s busiest racing
state. And it has received high praise across the industry for
the way in which it tracks deaths — every death that occurs on
the public grounds of a California racetrack is recorded in
detail, largely through veterinary reports.
Some other major racing states have no records
of fatalities that occur during morning training exercises, even
those that happen on the tracks where races are run in the
afternoon. Kentucky listed 228 deaths since 2003, but none of
them from training accidents, which in some states that track
them account for nearly a third of the total.
Other states, such as Colorado and Iowa, run
mixed breed meets, in which quarterhorses might appear in one
race a day while thoroughbreds make up most of the rest. Often,
these states list the deaths only by meet, not breed, although
veterinarians say the more muscular torsos and spindly ankles of
thoroughbreds make them more susceptible to injury.
Many states that do closely track horse deaths
haven’t been doing it for long. New Mexico counted 52 deaths in
2007, but its racing commission said it had no records before
Some states that do monitor deaths don’t
differentiate between horses that die in freak accidents in
their barns, for instance — the consensus is that such deaths
are rare — and those that break down training or racing and are
Such discrepancies have made the task
difficult for Mary Scollay, a veterinarian at two Florida
racetracks who has created a uniform national injury reporting
system that aims to record every thoroughbred fatality. Scollay,
who next month will become Kentucky’s equine medical director,
said 65 tracks are participating in the program now, but only 30
have compiled a full year’s worth of data.
She declined to release the preliminary
numbers, explaining the sample size is still too small to draw
conclusions. It could take years, Scollay said, before major
trends can be identified.
"Certainly we know more than we did last year
at this time, and one fatal injury is one too many," Scollay
said. "We know we need to do better. I think within the last few
weeks, there’s been a mobilization of the industry to do some
pretty serious things."
Those who own and handle the animals stand to
lose plenty when a horse is put down.
Timothy Capps, a professor at the University
of Louisville’s equine industry program, said most racehorses
don’t carry mortality insurance. The ones that do typically
carry only a fraction of their projected value as a stallion or
mare, Capps said.
After the gruesome breakdown of Eight Belles,
the Jockey Club created a national panel to examine safety, and
the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority did the same on the state
Among the topics being reviewed are track
surfaces, medication (particularly steroids), the use of the
whip by riders, and whether — as Bramlage suggests —
thoroughbreds are becoming less durable because they’re being
bred to emphasize speed rather than stamina early in their
"Those that do get hurt maybe get hurt worse
because of their speed and size," said Larry Jones, who trained
Eight Belles. "A good big horse will outrun a good little horse,
and they can be more fragile because their legs and joints have
to hold a lot more."
A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee has
asked states for the figures they have on fatalities ahead of a
hearing scheduled for Thursday.
Of particular interest to Congress is the
influence of steroids, which were legal this spring in most
racing states including Kentucky, Maryland and New York — which
host the Triple Crown races.
Those advocating a steroid crackdown got
ammunition when Big Brown, who easily won the Kentucky Derby and
Preakness Stakes with the steroid Winstrol still in his
bloodstream, ran the Belmont without it and finished last.
Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., said steroids should
be banned — not regulated — in horse racing but questions
whether the sport has the ability to police itself.
"There are enough people I have great respect
for who say this industry is really beginning to be in trouble,"
Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas said the
sport gets a bad rap for what he believes it does best — take
care of the animals.
"There isn’t a trainer worth his salt that
doesn’t look into this 24 hours a day," Lukas said. "I’ll
guarantee you that if any one of those purists who feel like
it’s an abusive sport would spend two weeks in my barn, they’d
walk away a different person and have a greater appreciation for
the care. Animals don’t have a say in it, but when they get to
this level, they have a pretty good deal going."