On September 6, 2009, an Associated Press story by Jeffrey McMurray appeared in the print and electronic media concerning horses dying on American racetracks in the years between 2003 and 2008. The story read, in part: “The rush to improve safety since Eight Belles was euthanized at last year’s Kentucky Derby did little to curb the number of horses dying at American racetracks in 2008…the AP’s count found only a slight change in the number of fatalities in 2008 (1,217) compared with 2007 (1,247). That’s around 3 percent fewer deaths…Last year, using open records requests sent to all thoroughbred racing states, the AP counted more than 5,000 horses that were reported killed at tracks between 2003 and 2007. The number was highest in the 2007 count because some states didn’t keep track before that. The same request was sent again this year to cover 2008.”

The New York Daily News’ headline proclaimed:   “Horse Racing Deaths Soar to Three Per Day.” Most of the newspapers carrying the AP story used such words as “fatalities” and “killed.”

A common thread in soundly conducted research studies is that they are carried out in an unbiased manner with a transparent methodology that can be evaluated and replicated by others. Terms and concepts are also unambiguously defined so they can be tested empirically.
The AP research does not come close to measuring up to these standards because all the reader is told is that the AP used “open records requests” to ascertain how many horses were “reported killed” and the definitions of  “killed”  and “fatalities” are not provided.  Any horse euthanized at a racetrack, for any reason, would qualify. Note that the AP story says “…dying at racetracks” but by mentioning Eight Belles implies that all the deaths were racing related.

The AP compilation of racetrack equine deaths is itself second hand in that it is based on research by various racing jurisdictions, and each of these almost certainly have dissimilar methodologies for tracking and reporting deaths. Moreover, some state reports are undoubtedly much more acurate than others. This is very flimsy evidence upon which to make such adamant declarations.

In June of 2008, the Association of Racing Commissioners International (RCI) released a report showing that in the five-year period 2003-2007, 3,035 Thoroughbreds, Standardbreds, and Quarter Horses died at racetracks in 19 of 38 U. S. racing jurisdictions, including the biggest racing states. Importantly, not all of the deaths occurred on the track in a racing or training accident. In these 19 major jurisdictions, there were 2,427,561 starters over the five years covered by the RCI study. Ed Martin, RCI’s president commented: “When you look at the numbers, what they show is that 99.875 percent of the time when a horse starts a race, they walk off safely afterwards.”

If Mr. Martin was quoted correctly, he understated the safety of racing and overstated the risk. Only if all of the 3,035 deaths occurred during actual races would Mr. Martin’s conclusion be warranted. In order to be accurate, the calculation would be: the number of horses killed or euthanized due to injuries suffered in races divided by 2,427,561. In other words, the number of deaths that did not occur while racing should be subtracted from the 3,035 deaths, meaning that the .0012502 death rate (3,035/2,427,561) is inflated and makes the situation look worse than it really is.

New York statistics for 2003-2007 from the State Wagering and Racing Board are revealing. During this period, 637 horses died at New York tracks from 521,703 starters. However, 189 of these deaths (29.7%) were due to non-racing causes, 388  deaths (60.9%) occurred during races, and 60 deaths (9.4%) occurred in training. Therefore, 99.9 percent of horses returned safely from races. Conversely, the death rate was .0007437. If the horses that died in racing and training are aggregated, the death rate rises to .0008587 and the percent of horses returning safely from racing and training is still 99.99 percent.

The AP reported that 5,000 horses were killed at racetracks between 2003 and 2007 and the total for 2007 was 1,247.  A follow-up study found that 1,217 were killed in 2008.  The number that died directly because of racing and training injuries may be far less than the AP report asserts. Assume for the moment that 5,000 horses did die  from various causes at U. S. racetracks between 2003 and 2007. Estimating using the preceding New York statistics, the number of horses killed while racing would be 5,000 x 60.9% = 3,045 and the number killed while training would be 5,000 x 9.4% = 470. This total of 3,515 is nearly 30% fewer racing/training deaths than the AP alleged and amounts to 703 horses per year over the five-year period. Even if New York were the safest racing state among all 38 jurisdictions, the AP’s 1,247 and 1,217 figures for 2007 and 2008 would still almost surely be spurious. The key to the calculations depends on whether the 5,000 figure includes racehorses that died from non-racing injuries.

The AP could have asked the racetracks for racehorse mortality figures for the years 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008, as follows:

1.  How many horses died at the racetracks in (fill in the name of the state)  during each of the years 2003-2008?

2.  How many horses died or were euthanized at the racetracks in  (fill in the name of the state) during each of the years 2003-2008 as a direct result of an injury suffered in an actual race?

3.  How many horses died or were euthanized at the racetracks in  (fill in the name of the state) during each of the years 2003-2008 as a direct result of an injury suffered in training?

If the first question was all that was asked, then the figure of 5,000 deaths due to racing injuries in 2003-2007 (plus another 1,217 in 2008) is bogus.  If the AP asked the second and third questions, then the proper reporting would be to state specifically what number of deaths were directly due to racing and what number were directly due to training.  This key omission is another reason to question the validity of the assertion that 6,217 (5,000 + 1,217) horses were killed at racetracks between 2003 and 2008.

If all 6,217 horses died because of injuries incurred on the racetrack, why is there no distinction between injuries during races and injuries during training?  Is one to believe that all 6,217 injuries were suffered in competition?  If so, the AP should say so and then reveal how many additional horses died from training injuries.

To state that 1,247 and 1,217 horses died at U. S. racetracks in 2007 and 2008 may be factually true. But 1,247 and 1,217 horses may not have been “killed” and may not have died due to racing and training injuries. If one considers all of the racehorses stabled at all of the racetracks across all U. S. racing jurisdictions, some horses will die natural deaths and others will be euthanized for non-racing-related reasons. These should not be counted as “killed in competition.” This is like a college football player succumbing to pneumonia and having the AP report it as a gridiron death.  Or blaming a hospital’s operating room facilities for every death in the hospital, regardless of causality.

I will remain skeptical about the validity of the AP assertions unless I can see the specific methodology pertaining to how the data were collected and tabulated and in particular how the individual racing jurisdictions compiled and reported their information.

A single death in racing and training is one too many and the quest for improved safety must go on with relentless pursuit.  Further, the number of catastrophic injuries is unacceptable. Yet, racehorse deaths from competition and the research methodology for ascertaining their scope should be accurately and honestly reported to the general public. Sensationalized accounts have no place in the serious business of making the racetrack safer for horse and human.

Copyright © 2009 Horse Racing Business