Jessica Chapel / Railbird

Jockey Club

The Invisible Industry

Several weeks ago, in a post called “The Invisible Sport,” Jennifer Wirth of the Saturday Post inspired a campaign to increase mainstream media coverage of horse racing. A worthy goal, but as the reaction to Joe Drape’s New York Times story on the the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation shows, it’s the whole industry that’s largely invisible, not just the sport.

Outside of Kentucky and New York, there aren’t many non-trade publications covering the larger stories of racing business and politics, and outside of the New York Times, almost none doing investigative work.

Vic Zast runs down the reasons for the lack of horse racing coverage in his HRI column today. All are familiar (fewer reporters, reduced resources, turf writers “captured” by sources), but that doesn’t make the problem any less an issue.

Wirth argues that racing won’t last if people aren’t exposed to the game and its stars through news stories; it also won’t last without press oversight, exposing serious issues and compelling change. Whatever the debatable flaws in Drape’s work, his reporting is necessary, and racing needs more of it.

3:15 PM Addendum: Writing on the Atlantic, Andrew Cohen reacts to the TRF story. “No matter who is at fault, no matter what happens to the TRF from here, please, someone, take care of those poor damned horses.” It seems like there should be a mechanism, some simple way to gather small sums for retirement funds — something like the Jockey Club check-off program, made mandatory. An an opt-in program, it isn’t attracting much support.

More to Come

Dr. Rick Arthur tells the Paulick Report:

… the next steps for the Equine Injury Database is a peer-reviewed study by [Dr. Tim Parkin] that could examine many other risk factors: class drops, pedigree, workout patterns, the distribution of injuries, the correlation between injuries and bumping or clipping heels during a race, whether or not horses injured during a race were on a vet’s list.

“We’ll be looking at a lot of the risk factors and try to figure out if there are any strategies that can make racing safer,” he said. “We have all the information that Equibase has, and all the information that the regulatory vets are collecting, including information on injuries that were not fatal. It’s going to be a very powerful tool.”

Statistically Significant

With two years of data in the Equine Injury Database, the Jockey Club is out today with updated fatality rates. The overall rate declined to 2.0 per 1000 starts from the 2.04 reported earlier this year. By surface, the rates are 2.14 on dirt (unchanged), 1.74 on turf, and 1.55 on synthetics (down from 1.78):

Parkin noted that the change in the overall fatality rate stemmed from cumulative two-year data that revealed a statistically significant difference in the prevalence of fatality on both turf and synthetic surfaces versus dirt. The difference in the prevalence of fatality between synthetic and turf surfaces was not statistically significant.

Confirms the impression that synthetic surfaces are safer (although the usual caveats apply re: uncertainty of factors such as new track bases, improved vet checks, anecdotal reports of increased non-fatal hind injuries, etc.).

12:55 PM Update: More from Thoroughbred Times: “… horses racing on a synthetic surface were 27.6% less likely to break down …

2.04 per 1000

On first reading, I thought there was an error in the headline of the press release: “Equine Injury Database Statistic Released by The Jockey Club.” But no, the Jockey Club did release just one statistic, and it is a sobering figure:

Based upon a year’s worth of data beginning November 1, 2008, from 378,864 total starts in Thoroughbred flat races at 73 racetracks … 2.04 fatal injuries were recorded per 1,000 starts.

TJC did not report the actual number of deaths, but the Courier-Journal did the math, coming up with:

… about 773 horse deaths, or an average of nearly 15 fatal injuries a week.

For comparison, the New York Times offers:

In England, for example, the average risk of fatality ranges from 0.8 to 0.9 per 1,000 starts. In Victoria, Australia, studies reported the risk of fatality from 1989 to 2004 at 0.44 per 1,000 starts.

More detailed data, although not track-by-track stats, will be released at the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit in June.

The Trouble With Racing

Speculation, allegations, rumor, and hearsay from Jim Squires in his new book, “Headless Horsemen,” reviewed by Ray Kerrison in the Wall Street Journal:

Mr Squires believes steroids were first used in ­racing in the 1950s. He makes some startling claims about earlier horse-racing champions. He alleges that 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat may have raced on steroids. “There are oldtimers who insist that even the magnificent physical stature of the great ­Secretariat was not all genetic and his early problem settling mares” — that is, breeding — “may have been a by-product of steroids.”

The allegations continue. Mr. Squires writes: ­“Denigrators of the late Frank Whiteley [1915-2008], the surly magician who trained Damascus and Ruffian, ­sincerely believe that his magic came from sniffs of ­cocaine and say they know people who say they saw Whiteley coming out of the stalls brushing the white dust off his hands.”

Fascinating stuff, as I expect Squires’ commentary on the industry power structure to be when I begin reading the book. More to come …