Horse deaths at Aqueduct spiked in 2012 and are doing so again in 2015. While a number of factors are likely to have contributed, the effect of winter weather on a dirt racetrack surface is the leading suspect.
The average high and low Fahrenheit temperatures at Aqueduct during the harshest winter months are similar to two other racetracks with winter racing—Laurel Park in Maryland and Turfway Park near Cincinnati, Ohio.
Dec. Jan. Feb.
New York City 43/32 38/27 42/29
Laurel, Maryland 46/29 42/25 46/27
Florence, Kentucky 44/27 39/22 44/26
The other weather variable that affects racing surfaces is precipitation, with New York City receiving the highest amount of snow and rain of the three locales, as shown in average inches a month.
Dec. Jan. Feb.
New York City 3.58 3.90 2.95
Laurel, Maryland 2.80 3.03 2.48
Florence, Kentucky 3.11 2.87 2.64
The most recent statistics from the Jockey Club Injury Database pertaining to horse fatalities (per 1,000 starts) at the three racetracks from 2009-2013 are revealing.
2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
Aqueduct 2.27 2.22 2.30 3.00 1.77
Laurel Park 1.98 2.46 1.02 2.01 3.18
Turfway Park 1.67 1.14 1.07 0.58 1.59
In the five-year period 2009-2013, Turfway Park’s synthetic surface consistently had fatality rates well below the comparable rates at the two racetracks with dirt surfaces. Turfway’s fatality rates are also considerably below the overall fatality rate of 1.9 for all U. S. racetracks in 2013, many of which are not in cold-weather climates or do not race in the winter.
Note that the horse mortality rate at Laurel Park in 2013 was higher than any single year at Aqueduct, and much higher than any year at Turfway Park and its synthetic surface. This provides some scientific corroboration that winter racing on dirt racetracks is a recipe for breakdowns.
Anyone who has ridden a horse outside during the winter weather knows the potential perils when metal horseshoes can’t cope with frozen or partially frozen dirt. A racehorse going at full speed compounds the risk.
The choice for Aqueduct to greatly reduce horse fatalities appears to come down to either abandoning winter racing altogether or installing a synthetic surface. However, before making a final decision, I would want to examine data on temperature and precipitation and breakdowns for more years and for more cold-climate racetracks that hold winter meets.
The proposed solutions I’ve seen from NYRA regarding the breakdown problem are unlikely to work and seem to indicate that the people in charge are in denial of the real problem and what to do about it.
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