JC / Railbird

Equine Safety

To the Dogs

John Pricci responds to the NHBPA’s opposition to a raceday drug ban:

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.

Hollywood Beckons

Santa Anita meet’s closed on Sunday and its numbers don’t tell a happy story*. David Milch’s racetrack drama probably won’t either, but the “Luck” preview released by HBO on Monday generates a good kind of excitement:

As a setting for storytelling, you couldn’t ask for anything more,” said Milch.

The horses used in filming “Luck” were some of the first to test the restored dirt track at Santa Anita last December, the same surface on which 19 horses were fatally injured during the meet. With an additional fatality on the training track and six on the turf course, the total number of fatalities came to 26 (as estimated here). Santa Anita is funding a safety study: “We hope that data will be important to us and something that we can apply.” That is to be hoped! It was a real pleasure to watch Santa Anita for three years and rarely worry about seeing a horse go down. After this meet, I can’t say that — and I’m not alone.

How’s this for ugly? Fatality numbers were almost all that was up at Santa Anita. While attendance held steady, handle declined. The track announced a 9% decrease in average daily handle, but the raw CHRIMS data, available through CalRacing, showed a 20.7% decline in gross handle over the previous year, from $589 million (PDF) to $467 million (PDF). Adjusting for eight fewer days, and a decline of 9.7% in the number of races carded, the Blood-Horse found average daily handle was down 11.6%. Pull the Pocket has an interesting theory on why Blood-Horse, which originally reported the 9% decline straight, revisited the handle numbers so thoroughly and quickly.

As long as I’m linking bad news, here’s more: The national HBPA officially opposes the proposed RCI ban on raceday medications. Apparently, a five-year phase-out isn’t long enough. “Blah. Blah. Blah,” says Ray Paulick. Exactly.

*Not a happy story, unless you’re a horseman or owner, in which case, hooray! Total purses were up 5.1% for the Santa Anita meet.

You Say Safe, I Say Deadly

Bob Baffert on the verge of his ninth Santa Anita training title:

“Getting back to the dirt was a big plus, and I have a pretty strong barn now which we were able to build up again. I’ve got no complaints, and it’s been a very safe meet.”

For Baffert’s barn, perhaps, aside from Always a Princess’ career-ending injury in the Santa Margarita. But it’s hardly been a safe meet for the overall horse population; on-track injury and fatality rates at Santa Anita have returned to the ugly level that helped spur the installation of synthetics in California.

Troubling TRF Report

Joe Drape is out with a scathing story this morning in the New York Times, alleging that the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation has had difficulty meeting its obligations to satellite farms caring for retired racehorses over the past two years, leading to cases of neglect and starvation. How deep is the mess? There’s no indication in Drape’s story that the quality of care horses get through the TRF Secretariat Center or prison farms has been compromised — and I hope that’s not because we don’t have the full story yet.

11:15 AM Update: TRF replies to Drape’s report on Facebook: “The TRF disputes the allegations by Joe Drape about the OK farms. They are either untrue or mis-characterized …” Further comment to come this afternoon.

12:30 PM Update: In a teleconference scheduled for 2:00 PM, TRF president George Grayson and board chairman Tom Ludt will speak to the press.

Ray Paulick is out with piece, from his perspective as a board member, that refutes the allegations in the NYT article and provides important context re: the financial turmoil that’s afflicted the organization for several years.

3/19/11 Addendum: “TRF defends itself against NYT article.” See also: “Dr. Patty Hogan responds to Drape.” I’m hesitant to say much at this point, because it’s obvious that the information out is incomplete, but what does come through re: TRF is that there’s tension with the Mellon Foundation, and re: retired racehorses is that not enough is being done (which is something that’s been known for a while). Drape’s story, which was followed up today with a report that the New York Attorney General’s Charities Bureau will review the complaints against TRF, has had one beneficial effect for TRF. “We’ve gotten a lot of money donated today, and that’s a positive thing.”

3/20/11 Addendum: The NYT reports that the veterinarian conducting the evaluations of TRF farms has been fired. “There were serious questions about her objectivity.” (But firing her raises serious questions about retaliation.) On the Paulick Report, Dr. Hogan “clarifies” the story by alleging Dr. Stacey Huntington released her findings “to the media for the purpose of creating drama” (comment #106). Dr. Huntington replies (comment #127).

← Before After →