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.

Copyright © 2015 Horse Racing Business


  1. Thank you for noting that Laurel Park had the highest of all in 2013, but I don’t remember the outrage and I follow Laurel. Sadly, the horse racing industry refuses to bring in totally unbiased investigators and so we are stuck with PETA on one side and total denial on the other. What ever the decisions and outcomes I hope they are based on fact and not hype.

  2. By the way, read the recent obituary of Charles E. (Chuck) Coon and the dramatic improvements he brought to Standard Bred racing surfaces and how they helped both the horses and owners. He wasn’t afraid to consult Swedish Scientists to form ideas.

  3. NY state will use the breakdown after breakdown scandal to close Aqueduct down. Watch and see, this will give them the reason they’ve been looking for. Violette and the others he represents are whistling past the graveyard with their contention that nothing is wrong with the racetrack. Something sure as hell is wrong.