View From The Eighth Pole: Horse Racing Should Heed Lessons From California

by | 09.04.2019 | 10:16am

The metrics of the horse racing business have changed.

There was a time, when I first got involved in the game in the 1970s, that attendance and wagering were the key numbers in defining success and failure of a race meeting. Off-track betting facilities, full-card simulcasting and advance deposit wagering gutted on-track business and made it more confusing to interpret pari-mutuel handle as the wagering pie got sliced into more and more pieces. 

The truth is, other than those directly affected by the economics of racing, few people care about whether a meet is up or down in attendance and handle. And many people who should care – racetrack management, horse owners and trainers among them – are ambivalent about the sport's traditional economics as long as revenue from slot machines or other gaming keeps churning to inflate purses and a racetrack casino's bottom line.

The new metric, and one that a growing number of people in and outside of the sport care about, is the fatality rate: how many horses died while racing and training. The general public has learned that horses die, an uncomfortable fact for those of us involved in racing for any length of time. We can no longer shrug our shoulders and say simply that it's “part of the game.”

The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club in Del Mar, Calif., concluded its 2019 summer meeting with a 10.9% decline in all sources handle from 2018. Average daily attendance was down even more, slipping by 13.8%. Yet this meeting was considered a major success because 36 days of racing were conducted without a single racing fatality.  Not one.


That is a phenomenal accomplishment, particularly in the wake of what took place at Santa Anita earlier this year with the widely publicized deaths of 30 Thoroughbreds in racing and training. The injury-free race meet at Del Mar may never be duplicated again, but this season proved that it can be done if everyone – owners and trainers, veterinarians, jockeys, track officials and regulators – puts the best interests of the horse first. Collectively, those stakeholders implemented stringent safety rules, including more robust track surface maintenance and analysis, enhanced veterinary inspections, more restrictive medication policies and revised training protocols. 

Many of the same protocols were put in place at Santa Anita in March and greatly reduced the fatality rate. It's hoped that the industry will experience a different Santa Anita when racing returns there in a few weeks and hosts the Breeders' Cup Nov. 1-2.

Two horses died from musculoskeletal injuries sustained during morning training hours at Del Mar and another two were killed in a freak accident when a horse threw his rider while training and ran headfirst into another horse that was breezing. The number of training fatalities also represented a significant reduction from 2018, when Del Mar was deemed by The Jockey Club's Equine Industry Database to have the safest race meeting in the country. Under CEO Joe Harper's leadership, Del Mar has been focusing on safety for several years.

Del Mar was in the spotlight for racing fatalities long before local and national news media descended on Santa Anita like vultures circling a dying carcass. The San Diego Union-Tribune had what seemed like an obsession with dead horses at Del Mar going back more than a decade, leading the California Horse Racing Board to mandate the installation of synthetic surfaces (since reversed) and providing fuel to animal rights extremists to picket the seaside track in hopes of shutting it down.

Those extremists were back protesting at Del Mar again this year, but for each protester carrying an anti-horse racing message there were three or four people whose lives depend on racing carrying signs in support of the game. Del Mar's 2019 safety record, combined with the counter-protests from many of the people who care for the horses on a daily basis, helped paint the animal extremists as just that.

Don't expect the mainstream media to ballyhoo the progress that's been made in equine safety in California over the last six months. That's not their job or their mission. Dead horses sell newspapers and generate Internet clicks and eyeballs for television. Safe racing does not. 

Indirectly, though, the media's relentless reporting may have been a tipping point for California's horse racing industry's leaders to take the significant measures that now are making a difference. 

The question now is “Who's next?” What state, what racing circuit will be targeted by animal rights extremists and the media when a cluster of horses dies? Will the leaders in those other states – whether it's New York, Kentucky, Maryland, Florida or elsewhere – be proactive in adopting similar safety protocols as California before their feet are held to the fire? Or will they dig in their heels and resist change until they have no choice?

 I'd like to think these other states have learned something from what California has experienced, but I fear they have not.

That's my view from the eighth pole.

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