Photo by Emily Calkins

The sudden death of horses at racetracks is causing alarm and concern in some circles.

According to the Horseracing Wrongs website, 42 horses died at Santa Anita Park since Dec. 26, 2018. During the same time period, there were 86 equine deaths at New York tracks, 62 in Florida, 35 in West Virginia and 52 in Pennsylvania.

Mike Hopkins, executive director of the Maryland Racing Commission, said 24 deaths occurred at Maryland tracks this year, including four at Pimlico and 17 at Laurel Park, a lower number despite Laurel’s nearly year-round racing calendar with a higher volume of races and horses compared with many tracks in competing states.

Racing officials and others familiar with the industry say a combination of factors are leading to a higher number of fatalities in other states, while Maryland appears to be benefitting from proactive measures to address horse safety.

“When you’ve got a spate of fatalities and breakdowns, it’s always because something has changed and it’s always multi-factorial,” said Alan Foreman, general counsel to the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (MTHA).

“We’re laser focused in Maryland on the safety and welfare of the horse,” he said. “We’re implementing measures here, and working collectively throughout the mid-Atlantic to improve what we’re doing.”

Surface Tension

Frank Stronach, founder of The Stronach Group (TSG), the Canadian entertainment and real estate company that owns Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course, is no longer officially involved with the business, but asserted that Laurel Park’s safety record is largely a result of improvements made during his tenure as track owner.

“I spent between $30 and $40 million of my own money to raise the track foundation seven feet and personally supervised the construction,” Stronach said.

The improvements were necessary because Laurel Park was built on a swamp and suffers from poor drainage, he explained.

David Richardson, MTHA’s executive director, emphasized that communication between stakeholders at the track is a critical element of maintaining track safety.

“We took the bull by the horns in terms of track surfaces,” he said. “The Maryland Jockey Club consults with the jockeys and trainers, and when the horsemen report a problem with the track, it gets fixed right away.”

TSG officials hope to provide an added safety measure for Laurel in their proposed redevelopment plan by installing a synthetic Tapeta track, a mixture of silica sand, wax and fiber that handles wet weather and heavy rainfall extremely well.

Similar to turf, the surface would help prevent horsemen from scratching horses when extreme weather forces turf races to switch to the dirt track and help sustain the handle that can be lost when bettors shy away from the unpredictability of a different surface.

“We’re really putting ourselves at a huge advantage by adding a safe and much more year-round surface,” Foreman said. “No other track in the country has dirt, synthetic and turf.”

Climate Change

The official investigation of California’s tragedies hasn’t been released yet, but Foreman, one of four industry experts who investigated the 2011 and 2012 spike in equine fatalities at New York’s Aqueduct Race Track, thinks climate may be a contributing factor.

“[Santa Anita] had the heaviest rains they’ve ever had in their history this year and also had very cold temperatures,” he noted. “Southern California is essentially an arid climate and continuing heavy water on the racetrack changed the conditions of the racing surface.”

This year’s persistent drought could well have contributed to equine fatalities in New York, he added, resulting in a harder surface than horses were not used to.

California’s smaller horse population might constitute another significant difference, Foreman suggested.

“Those horses do not ship around, and they run back to back races,” he said. “They’re not taking a rest and going to another state between races. You can get a tired horse population that reacts to a racing surface, things that we just don’t see here.”

Safety Template

Medication protocols are another factor that has been attracting scrutiny.

“I think overmedication is a primary reason we’re seeing so many injuries and breakdowns,” said Stronach, who is one of the advocates for the proposed Horseracing Integrity Act now being considered by Congress.

Foreman and other industry experts agree in principle but say the bill goes too far by banning race day Lasix, a diuretic given to temporarily decrease a horse’s weight.

“[This] will cause more equine deaths,” stated Eric Hamelback, CEO of the national Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, while Foreman said Lasix has no association with breakdowns.

The bigger problem stems from anti-inflammatory drugs and corticosteroids administered too close to race days, Foreman said. While they treat swelling and pain, they can also prevent veterinarians and trainers from noticing other physical situations that could threaten a horse’s safety or make it more prone to injury.

“We’re working with experts to ensure racing is as good and safe as it can be and the record in Maryland demonstrates that,” Foreman said. “A lot of this is evidence-based, and hopefully what we do here will be a template for the rest of the country, particularly California.”