SANTA ANITA IS SYMPTOMATIC OF A MACRO PROBLEM

Experts in racetrack surfaces are searching for answers to why Santa Anita has had 21 horse fatalities since late 2018. Management has closed the track in the meantime amidst a plethora of global media scrutiny and both bewilderment and outrage among the public.

Periodically, a rash of horse fatalities occurs at a racetrack and draws attention from mainstream media and people who don’t normally follow horse racing. Experts are brought in, the problem resolves itself, and media attention wanes until the next episode crops up at Aqueduct, Del Mar, Santa Anita, or some other high-profile racetrack. The larger question about causality goes unanswered.

I try to be analytical on Horse Racing Business and stick to making statements with a factual basis. Though I don’t have the very detailed information about horse fatalities I need to make sweeping assertions about why they occur on American racetracks, I have enough data to at least identify areas of major concern. A comparison of British and North American fatality statistics offers insight in this regard.

According to the British Horseracing Authority, in flat and jump races over the past five years, the number of horse fatalities in Great Britain—and the percentage they represent of all horses that ran in races—are:

2018 202 horse fatalities = 0.22% of all starters
2017 167 = 0.18%
2016 171 = 0.19%
2015 156 = 0.18%
2014 189 = 0.22%

The relatively high percentage of fatalities in jump races inflates these figures. The jump-race fatalities from 2014 through 2018 averaged 0.56%. Thus if the jump-race fatalities are taken out of the overall calculations, the fatality toll for flat races is dramatically lower:

2018 76 fatalities (in flat races) from 58,684 starters
2017 42 fatalities from 59,349
2016 37 fatalities from 57,908
2015 20 fatalities from 56,717
2014 45 fatalities from 55,193

In percentage terms, fatalities in British flat races average less than one-tenth of one percent of all starters.

By contrast, statistics from the (American) Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database depict that from 2014 through 2017 (2018 data are not yet available) about one percent of all starters were fatalities (imputed from fatalites per 1,000 starts stats).

2017 506 horse fatalities from 50,651 starters
2016 497 fatalities from 52,049 starters
2015 535 fatalities from 53,365 starters
2014 649 fatalities from 55,198 starters

(While North American statistics include jump racing, these races account for a very small percentage of all the races run.)

British horse racing (flat) is safer than North American racing by a large margin. Two reasons that could explain much of the difference are evident. First, the preponderance of British races are run on turf, which is a demonstrably safer surface than the prevalent dirt surface in North America. The Equine Injury Database shows, for example, that fatalities per thousand starts on turf for 2017 were 1.36 versus 1.74 for dirt. Fatalities on synthetic surfaces were lowest of all at 1.1 per thousand starts. Second, the British are much stricter on drug policy and do not permit any medication on race day.

The American racing industry has mostly resisted synthetic surfaces–with Del Mar, Keeneland, and Santa Anita actually uninstalling their synthetic tracks in spite of the surface’s superior safety record. Medication reform, most notably a provision for a national oversight body and a ban of drugs on race day, has also been fought against by powerful interests.

An outsider looking in on the racing industry in North America, especially the United States, would be left to wonder whether it really intends to improve safety conditions for horse and rider…or just says it does. Yet if progess is not made on reform, and soon, there might not be an industry left.

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