As the saying goes, it would be a shame to let such a good crisis go to waste. Bill Finley wrote a great column today, calling for the end of winter racing in New York. The editorial board of the Times has already provided their political cover on the issue. If ever there was a chance to get out from under the ill-advised, tax-starved decisions from forty years ago that brought us this bush-league racing product in the first place, this is it.
Here’s how it could go down. You can’t expect Christopher Kay to play a leading public role, as he’s a businessman with a politician who just got re-elected to another 4-year term for a boss. What he needs to do is drop the “enhanced guest experience” crap for a minute and whisper into the appropriate ear that what NYRA has is a “branding problem” (I hate this business-speak, but, when in Rome). Winter racing, and all the calamities that come with it, are dragging down the NYRA brand. Eliminate state-mandated winter racing dates and ordinary levels of caution will soon become sufficient, leaving NYRA to lavish its abundances upon their guests, with goodness and tribute destined to ensue …
Safety is tops among the several good reasons it may be time to curtail winter racing in New York, but one I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere is that it would also eliminate cold weather as a reason for not consolidating the NYRA circuit by moving all non-Saratoga racing to Belmont Park — a track that’s built for June, not February. It would open up the state-owned land Aqueduct sits on for development, which has to be a tempting secondary effect.
… think like an outsider. You really want to try to explain claiming to an animal-rights activist, a state legislator or a 60 Minutes host? “So, let me get this straight Horse Racing Person … a trainer can run a horse he or she no longer wants because it’s slow or has an ailment that really doesn’t look like one, and hope some other trainer claims it? No questions asked?”
This has nothing to do with Hendrickson or Navarro or Trombetta or the Morrises, or people who play the claiming game. It has everything to do with the racing model the industry provides for its participants. We can do better.
The outcry over Grade 1 winner Monzante’s death following a claiming race in 2013, or the spike in inner-track fatalities at Aqueduct in 2012 (and again, this winter), is but a preview of the crisis to come if one of these stories about claimers not only crosses over into mainstream media, but sticks.
One year’s decline isn’t a trend, but the fatality rate reduction at Suffolk Downs reported by racing director Jennifer Durenberger is still impressive:
Let’s look first at the catastrophic injury rate for the meet: 1.24 per thousand starts. This is down from 1.73 in 2013 — a nearly 30 percent reduction …
Thanks to the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database (EID), which captures data from an amazing 93 percent of all flat racing days, we know that the average catastrophic injury rate in 2013 was 1.9 per thousand starts. That includes all horses — young and old, graded stakes competitors and seasoned claimers, sprinters and routers, turf specialists and mudders. When we separate that by surface, we see a nationwide average of 1.63 catastrophic injuries per thousand turf starters and 2.08 per thousand dirt starters. At Suffolk Downs in 2014, the turf rate was 1.44 and the dirt rate was 1.20 — less than 60 percent of the national average.
Among the losses incurred by Suffolk Downs’ demise, count the reform work done by state regulators in partnership with track management since 2012, work that included adopting uniform medication rules and a horse-first welfare policy, making racing safer for vulnerable (older, cheaper) horses.
The latest analysis of the data also continued to show a statistically significant difference between the rate of catastrophic injuries on artificial surfaces when compared with dirt surfaces and turf surfaces. Over the past three years, horses running on synthetic surfaces have suffered catastrophic injuries at a rate of 1.3 per 1,000 starts, whereas horses running on turf had a 1.6 rate and dirt horses had a 2.0 rate, slightly higher than the overall rate of 1.9, according to researchers.
We can’t keep ignoring the facts: Synthetic surfaces are safer. Any serious discussion about or initiative for reducing fatalities must include synthetics.
… there also remains the undeniable fact that claiming races, by their very nature, serve to weaken the inherent responsibilities of both ownership and animal husbandry. The demands of constant turnaround require short-term solutions in veterinary care. The claiming game also nurtures the ability to suppress any real emotional attachments to the horses involved. They are, after all, merely transients — poker chips, as one famous claiming owner called them — no more or less than means to an end.
What’s the future for claiming races?
That’s one of the questions I took away from reading the New York Task Force report, which determined that sharply increased purses “commoditized” lower level claiming horses earlier this year, and suggested reforming claiming rules so that claims may be voided if a horse is vanned off. “The voiding of a claim should not require the death of the horse,” the report’s authors write on page 60. Practical, humane — exactly the sort of rule change that’s necessary if claiming races are going to continue to be a significant part of the game. But while the imbalance in purses and claiming prices at Aqueduct may have led to the resulting claiming frenzy last winter, it didn’t actually commodify the horses, because they were already commodities. Most in racing don’t question the system — the claiming game has been a pretty elegant solution to keeping races competitive over the years — but it’s becoming harder to defend.
How can so many of the game’s practitioners fail to see that what they accept as “unfortunate accidents that are part of the game” is unacceptable to an unknowing and unsophisticated populace?
Do so many horsemen wear closed-cup blinkers that they cannot see “taking a bad step” is nothing more or nothing less than animal cruelty in the public’s eye, a public that could shut the whole down thing down because for 15 minutes they were empowered to take action and feel good about themselves?
That’s what happened in Massachusetts to greyhound racing, an animal sport nationally in steep decline, partly due to dog welfare and safety issues.