Saratoga Fatalities: Any Common Risk Factors Involved?

by | 08.25.2017 | 8:41am

Saratoga has been in the news this summer not just for its excellent racing and traditionally popular, fan-friendly atmosphere, but also for equine fatalities. So far this year at Saratoga, 17 horses have died, compared to 16 deaths in 2016 and 13 in 2015.

The New York State Gaming Commission, New York Racing Association, and New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association issued a press release days after the 17th death to assure the public they were working on the issue. In addition to safety protocols implemented over the past several years, the groups detailed the monitoring process for the track surface and announced additional regulatory veterinary presence on the backstretch.

One thing the release didn't provide was speculation on what has prompted the recent rash of deaths. An examination by the Paulick Report reveals that could be because there seems to be few similarities between them.

“We also have found no single identifying commonality to these horses,” said NYRA safety steward Hugh Gallagher. “However, we are continuing to examine and assess every possible relative factor as all of these matters remain active investigations.”

Dr. Scott Palmer, equine medical director for the commission, said it is the commission's policy not to comment on open investigation, but noted he anticipates releasing a report when investigations are complete.

According to the commission's database for equine deaths, one of this year's fatalities was unrelated to racing (a case of colic treated unsuccessfully at a nearby clinic). Of the remaining 16, eight were training injuries and eight were racing injuries. Fatal injuries have taken place on the main track, Saratoga's inner and outer turf tracks, and the dirt surface at the Oklahoma Training facility on the Saratoga campus. There has also been variability in the location of injuries on those track surfaces, with horses breaking down in the stretch, in the first turn, after the wire, and even one after the gallop out.

The Equine Injury Database has identified a number of risk factors associated with a higher probability of fatal injury for racehorses. Some of those are identifiable in a horse's past performances, while others remain difficult to spot without additional information from the state. We took a look at the few risk factors we could spot based on a horse's records in Equibase. (The two steeplechase deaths were excluded from this analysis, since the EID deals primarily with flat racing data.)

One of the EID-identified factors is the presence of a race on an “off” dirt track. According to racing charts, none of this year's racing fatalities took place on a dirt track rated anything other than fast. Track condition was not noted in the state database for three fatal injuries on the Oklahoma Training surface.

Horses that switch barns are known to carry an increased risk of fatal breakdown for a period of time after the switch. Only two of this year's fatalities switched barns since their first career starts, according to Equibase records.

Shorter races are also associated with an increased likelihood of fatality, with sprinters at the greatest risk, but four of six flat racing deaths took place at greater than one mile (one at 1 1/16 miles, two at 1 1/8 miles, and one at 1 ¾ miles).

Presence on a veterinarian's list is also associated with a higher likelihood of fatal injury, according to the EID, and the horse's risk remains elevated for a significant period after they are cleared to return to the starting gates. A horse may be placed on the vet's list for coming out of a race unsound or for failing a pre-race inspection sometime ahead of the race, or for the use of certain medications. New York does not maintain a public-facing, searchable index of its veterinarian's list (though it is one of two jurisdictions to provide a published vet's list, in the form of a daily pdf sheet), but we were able to see whether a horse had failed to finish in a previous start, which would probably result in its being added to the list. Just one horse had a prior DNF on its record.

In 2012, the New York Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety addressed a variety of possible influences on the number of equine deaths at the 2011-12 Aqueduct meet. Two of the temporary safety measures put in place as a result of that investigation were a requirement of 14 days between starts, and a ‘poor performer' list which would receive extra veterinary monitoring. Poor performers were defined as those who had finished 25 lengths or more behind the leader in at least one start.

None of this year's Saratoga racing fatalities were making a start with less than 14 days between starts. Only two would have qualified as ‘poor performers,' but just barely: both of them had finished right on the line at roughly 25-26 lengths off the leader once.

The public often voices concern about cheaper, claiming level runners being at increased risk for fatal breakdown. The EID has not yet been able to gather data on this successfully because of the disparity in quality and purse structure between tracks, but of the racing fatalities at Saratoga, only three horses were running for a tag. One was in a stakes race.

The 16 racing and training fatalities did not appear to be overworked, as a group. Number of lifetime starts ranged from zero to 23, with only three horses running more than 15 times in their careers. All three were five years old and up.

The one risk factor that did apply to roughly half of the 2017 Saratoga fatalities: 2-year-old campaigns. The EID has identified horses that have made a start at two as being less likely to suffer a fatal injury than those who did not. Eight of the 14 training and flat racing fatalities this year failed to make a start at two. (One 2-year-old filly, who died during training, was excluded from this number.)

None of this is to say the EID or the Task Force were wrong in their identification of risk factors or safety recommendations. Rather, the Saratoga meet may serve as a reminder of what Dr. Tim Parkin, senior lecturer at the University of Glasgow's equine clinical science program, said at last year's Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit. When looking at the national numbers, the risk of equine fatality went down significantly between 2014 and 2015. However, when researchers tried to explain the reduction in fatality rate, they found that seven identified risk factors only accounted for 35 percent of the decline. The other 65 percent is still out there, lurking in untested variables or in additional information Parkin and his colleagues don't have yet.

  • Hamish

    Are the NY authorities looking into these horse fatalities comparing each horse’s medical record to the others to see if they might have had similar drug treatment regimes or nagging injuries in the same part of the body? Were the permitted therapeutic drugs given so frequently or in such combinations that the horse may have been running through its underlying condition? Seems those looking at all the factors contributing to horse deaths will probably report on legal drug usage when their analysis comes to conclusions.

  • Erekose77

    “…of the racing fatalities at Saratoga, only three horses were running for a tag.”

    Three out of eight fatalities being claiming horses is still a potential risk factor of interest. If fatalities are restricted to flat races only, that’s 3 out of 6. Furthermore, more light would be shed on this fraction if the proportion of claiming races carded versus non-claiming races (i.e., does Saratoga run more non-claiming races than claiming races?) were known.

    Meanwhile, with 2 fatalities in jump races, a critical look at that style of racing probably should be in the offing.

    • Manefan

      I hope that I read the article correctly but, I think that the 3 claiming fatalities are out of the 17 total at Saratoga. Still, to me, significant.

      • Robert Millis

        but that raises the Q of: how are the categorizing these huge # of Optional claiming races they now have? As Claiming? Allowance?

        • Manefan

          I wish that I could answer that but, the question makes my head hurt and I think that I have to go lie down now. As was often heard in my household, “I don’t know, honey, go ask your dad.”, I’m going to fall back on that response, with some obvious word change-ups. ;)

        • Meg Hiers

          I think you got your answer by the fact they said the horse was running for a tag.

      • Lehane

        Just one death is significant. Currently in Australia, we have a racehorse breaking down and dying every 2.6 days and the deaths are increasing.

    • louisville race fan

      “lets take a critical look at that style of racing” typical 2017 american knee jerk reaction remember it has been going on in Europe for quite a while

      • Erekose77

        Yawn. In the context of an article that tries to link fatalities with certain risk factors, it would be disingenuous to ignore something obvious like the manner of racing as a possible influence. Everything’s on the table.

        There’s nothing really “2017 American knee jerk reaction” about it, but even if it were I suppose your “it’s been going on for quite a while so let’s keep our heads buried in the sand” mentality is the most appropriate and compelling response?

        How’s the status quo been working for the sport of horse racing for the last couple of decades?

      • Lehane

        Jumps racing is barbaric. A huge effort is being made in Australia to ban it outright where it’s illegal except for one remaining state being Victoria.

      • Matthew Hood

        It’s been highly criticized in Europe for over half a century. So not really a 2017 knee jerk reaction.

  • Rocket Scientist

    NYRA installed a “NEW” dirt course that had its first usage just 10 days before the meets first race on July 21st. Why in the world that is not being outlined I am not sure. The scarier part and what everyone here needs to realize, these deaths are just a tiny pimple of the horses that are actually breaking down or being hurt on a daily basis via training. The training injuries is what should be looked at. The number is grossly larger than these 17 horses who were fatally injured.

    • Eric

      NYRA, and horse racing as a whole are specifically under fire for the racing related deaths. You are absolutely correct that there are tons of soft tissue and other non-fatal injuries suffered during training hours (at any track) but those injuries are considered a little more acceptable than the fatal breakdowns.

    • Canarse

      And yet there seems to be as many breakdowns on the turf as on the “NEW” dirt. So much for that logic.

      • Flintstone

        Too small a sample size with overlapping factors. Saratoga cards a lot of turf races with larger fields so there are probably more turf starters than dirt. The differences I see with turf runners in terms of the factors listed are: Less claimers, slower early pace (less sprints), less likely to have changed barns, and probably less drugs because of Euro shippers planning to return home immediately. The easiest factor to quantify is drugs and they will bury the necropsies and give us this junk science any fool with a stack of racing forms could produce.

  • Wixby


  • Vivian Snow

    I would like to see them start tracking where the horses who do break down (not the colic or heart attack fatalities), were born & raised. I’m curious to know if environment plays a factor in break downs. Meaning, if they’re missing something in their diets as they grow, could that be leading to weaker bones. I’d also like to see the vet work that these horses were receiving prior to their breakdowns. Were they being medicated at all. I think it’s helpful when tracks provide some back up data but I think more could be helpful in preventing future breakdowns.

    • Lina_TX

      The cardiac events need to be included in the closer scrutiny. You may recall there being a series of cardiac-looking fatalities in California a few years back, some of which were later ascribed to supplements.

      • Michael Castellano

        That was Baffert’s horses.

        • theosmachine

          I believe Nero was trained by Asmussen. Second in the derby as I recall.

      • Lehane

        Agree. The sudden deaths are just as important as the limb injuries. Another very important risk factor is the feet e.g. underrun heels, hoof/feet out of alignment with the horse’s leg, poor farrier work, etc. etc.
        The ill-fated Asmussen horse Nero was a classic example of a horse racing on bad feet.

        • Would be a classic example if it had actually happened.

          Nehro didn’t race on bad feet. Bad feet kept him from racing. Stop getting your info from PETA.

          And it’s Nehro not Nero

          • L.L. Kauffman

            Good reply


    Found it rather interesting that NYRA seemed to look at a lot of stats but a physical analysis of the main track’s racing surface should be the first order of business.
    The main track has played uncharacterisicly fast this year with a huge rail bias which is often a recipe for injuries & fatal breakdowns. There has been breakdowns on essentially all of The Spa’s racing surfaces but a common factor is that a high percentage of Saratoga stabled horses train & post workouts on the main track. Odds say there is where the problem resides!

  • Robert Millis

    I apologize if this is right in front or me but I am not seeing it; but:
    Q: what is the breakdown of race-day incidents Main Track vs Inner Turf vs Mellon?

    One of my initial observations is that Field Size seems to have an impact. The bigger the field = the higher probability. Which would make sense: more horses = more traffic = more need to maneuver

    • Eric

      I don’t see this breakdown listed in this article or in the actual press release. If you go to the NYS Gaming commission website – under the resources section of the homepage you will see a “Equine Breakdown, Death, Injury And Incident Database” link. You will figure out how to use it from there – you can see for yourself a brief recap of each equine fatality and you can kind of do your own study.

      2 of the 17 fatalities occurred before the meet started.

      McLaughlin lost 2 horses (1 training, 1 racing) in 2 days. No other trainer lost more than 1.

  • Michael Banis

    The sample is too small to say anything scientifically conclusively, good horsemen may have hunches, which would be just as valuable. The only one that might be a little concerning is fast vs off track. To admit this though is a big problem because it would mean cancelling race days. On average 38 people per year die skiing, so while we should do all we can to prevent deaths the nature of the sport should not change. Sports are enjoyed because they are played on the edge of physical possibility, and sometimes they go over.

    • Manefan

      I’d appreciate any and more concern because those 38 people made a conscious choice. Horses, even if they did try to get the message across, don’t really have a choice.

      • Matthew Hood

        That’s counter-balanced by the fact that being forced to race is the only reason they get to live in the first place.

  • McGov

    ” Eight of the 14 training and flat racing fatalities this year failed to make a start at two.”
    Well, I might have to get my calculator out on this one but….seems like making a start at two puts you in a lower risk category for catastrophic injury….of course making a start at two means training at 2 which means …those early easy miles matter ;)

    • Tinky

      Horses that fail to start at two often start later because they are intrinsically less sound, and they are more likely to have serious conformation defects. Also, just because they didn’t start at two doesn’t mean that they didn’t train early.

      • McGov

        Knowing the reasons a horse didn’t race at 2 is important……could be a lot of different things.

        • Tinky

          Yes. I’m not arguing that it isn’t statistically beneficial to have started at two, within the context of soundness, only that it is very complicated, and that the basic correlation is probably overstated.

          • McGov

            I agree, it’s not just as simple as “raced at two”…or didn’t. Racing at 2 speaks of success in all things, early…..but not racing at 2 doesn’t necessarily mean there was a PHYSICAL problem…..often, it is mental immaturity.

        • Lehane

          Where i am, i come across a significant number of horses who are put into training at about 16-18 months, have their first trial or race at 2, flops and is then sent out to spell for 9-12 months and come back as a 3 year old. There are a raft of reasons as to why they don’t do well in their first trial/start, such as immature bodies, injury, pulls up badly post race, takes a long time to recover after first race, unsound.

          • McGov

            Each horse is different….some are quite average or below average and might get a start…..with the agenda being strictly some experience without overwhelming, etc. and the focus being more long term.
            I’ve been involved with hundreds of babies that have gone through this process….some are just dangerously stup…..not that smart…and they have these incredible bodies, but too far ahead of their mind…the list is long on the reasons but the smart programs are the ones that don’t push babies too much…..push a little but keep close eye on things to see how they respond….much like children ;)
            Taking 9 to 12 months off is like starting all over again and speaks of serious injury…..too long IMO between baby experience and 3 yr old season.

  • Curt Richardson

    I’ve been to Saratoga after a rainstorm, when the main track looked like a pond. they didn’t seal tracks back then. They also didn’t have the loose scratch rules, or “main track only” designations. It was commonplace for trainers to run their horses every 2-3 weeks, They used to run lower level claiming horses(about 5k), usually in the last race. This was a step up for some tracks(Bowie, Laurel, Suffolk, even Green Mountain) and made for some interesting handicapping. This is how I met Angel Cordero’s mother. He was always looking for mounts and the cheap races were easier to pick up a mount. The 2yr. olds., and the distances they’re asked to run so early is a big factor. The owners have changed dramatically. They used to be horsemen and knew the sport. Now they’re celebrities eager to push the horses for more publicity and quick money.. Factor in drugs and these are the main reasons for increased injuries.

  • Dean Hully

    My feeling for the level of fatalities is that due to the prestige and purse levels of running at Saratoga trainers are pushing horses more than they do at a usual meet. Either way, it will be hard to get a handle on this phenomenon given the small sample size.

  • Michael Castellano

    I think the one common factor is that there are too many basically unsound horses being raced. They cost huge amount of money, in many cases, and there is enormous pressure to race them. I wonder if there are stats on breakdowns and fatalities per the number of races from the distance past, when horses raced much more often? I’m sure many factors come into play, and it would appear that all those factors are aggravated when the horse is not sound.

    • Gls

      How many horses do you own?

  • Snowman

    Let me guess… the trainers post-accident jargon goes something like this…”I sure am sorry about your horse, Mr. Owner. Sometimes they just take a bad step. We did everything we could for him but sometimes things like this just happen. A man could go crazy trying to reason it all out… I quit trying to understand it years ago. Darn shame, he was a pretty horse. On the up side, I know a guy who has a nice gelding that just came out of training and we can get him for you and have him trailered up here to finish the meet…” Owner loses again. The machine wins again… the cycle continues. (The above scripted retort is found on pages 8-11 of the trainers BS black book)

    There is always “another one”… Walk away, Mr Owner, just keep your wallet in your pocket and walk away…

  • Genellen

    We spent Thursday at Saratoga and enjoyed breakfast on the “porch” there yesterday morning. Given that it was the day before the Travers, I thought it would be crowded, but it wasn’t. The waitress told us that whereas they expected 500 customers, they only had 300, and that the totals had been lower this season than expected. As I sat there, enjoying the workouts, I couldn’t help but think: To see a horse break down while I’m in my most idyllic place on Earth is not something I want to experience. Maybe people are afraid to see that happen in front of them? Not good for the sport.

    Or it could be that NYRA keeps raising the cost of going to the track there….Fridays count as weekends now, and that means you pay more.

  • Hank Lowry

    I find it very interesting that this is such a lively topic. Obviously we are fans of horse racing or we would not visit this site. Risks are high in any professional sports. I do think we should root out savage trainers, but for the majority we see caring professionals who provide a service to the betting public, us. Golf, football, basketball etc, come with injury risks associated with each sport. We still watch and enjoy and then have sympathy, some times empathy with the injured participants. This is life its ownself, to quote Dan Jenkins.

  • Duke

    with so many “experts”
    out there why can’t we get to the bottom of this.

  • Pat Goodson

    Having read all the comments, I find one variable missing, genetics. This can explain small hooves, bad tendons, weak knees and poor bone density. I am guessing this is being looked at, but breeders and stallion owners want any negative info kept quiet. Look what happened to the QH industry when the Impressive information got released.

  • Horses race at two because they are sound. They aren’t sound because they race at two.

    A horse who didn’t start as a two year old probably already has physical problems

  • slvrblltday

    Gotta consider: we breed for speed, concentrate elite at DEL/SAR each yr, pit against each other; should not assume it’s the track when they break down.

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