I have found the recent wringing of hands in American horse racing over the spate of deaths at Santa Anita both disappointing and dishonest. Since I have been a horse owner and breeder for many years you may wonder why I feel there is dishonesty in our sport. Simply, the data tells me a much different story than American racing powers do.
I could easily refer to other countries to reach my disappointing and dishonest data-based conclusion. Afterall, other countries have data which seems to indicate that their racing fatalities are one third to one half those of the American racing industry. They claim their rules which ban race day medication, include extensive out of competition testing, longer racing distances, and their racing surfaces, are more protective of both horse and rider. However, all I have to do is look at our own American racing data to be disappointed.
American racing powers often point to the Equine Injury Database (EID) to illustrate how concerned they are about fatalities. Most of the American racetracks “self-report racing related” fatalities to the database. I say self-report because I have never heard about quality-controlled auditing procedures to verify the reported data, and I know for a fact the “racing related” fatalities are only a portion of the fatalities which occur at the racetracks while horses are stabled on the track’s premises. With that said however, the EID has been positively referred to by American racing for the last few years.
From 2015 through 2017 the data indicated a decline in American equine race related fatalities. Data analysts knew this data was simply random or common cause variation but now racing has embarrassingly been skewered on their own weapon of defense. The 2018 EID numbers indicate that the fatality rates were the highest in the last four years. Of course, this 2018 data also is simply common cause variation but such is life when the media has a headline and the public understands little about statistical science.
Unfortunately, a deeper look into the EID data clearly indicates how lackadaisical American racing has been about addressing fatalities. You see, the data has credibly indicated for years that fatalities could be reduced by racing on both turf and synthetic surfaces. Nevertheless, we continue to run over 7 of every 10 races on dangerous dirt surfaces. Dirt racing produces 64% more equine racing deaths than synthetic surfaces do, and 34% more than turf racing does! These percentages are not mathematical unknowns requiring complex analytical solutions to discover, they are simple knowns!
Again, utilizing the EID data, any first-year college statistical student could calculate that 1,509 fewer equine deaths would have occurred over the last decade if we only raced on turf or synthetic surfaces! If American racing really cared about equine fatalities, one would reasonably assume we set “safety goals” years ago associated with ending dirt racing, which is how they predominantly race in Europe.
In 2013, 26.7% of our American races were run on the “much safer” turf or synthetic surfaces. Five years later in 2018, only 27.9% of our races are being run on turf and synthetic surfaces. This means that there has been essentially no progress for our American “safety seeking” racing industry. Reviewing the 2018 EID data, 138 fewer horses would have died if all races had been run on turf and synthetic surfaces!
Now, I understand the cost arguments about changing out dirt for synthetic material. Both racetracks and trainers would claim cost and time complexity issues. Breeders would claim certain pedigrees only lend themselves to running on “dangerous” dirt. Racing groups would likely bring in “expert” shills to create illusions that the surface fatality data is not clear. Nevertheless, if nothing trumps safety in American racing and we claim that equine safety is “paramount”, why isn’t American racing presenting a detailed transition plan to phase out all dirt surface racing?
Another consideration, based upon the EID data, is racing distance. Fatality rates when horses run over a mile in route races are 25% lower than they are for mile or under races. Here again American racing has failed to address this issue, apparent in our own data, and in fact regressed. In 2018 only 16.6% of our races were run at more than a mile. Five years ago, in 2013, 19.2% of our races were run over a mile. If just half of the 2018 races were run over a mile 47 fewer horses would have died.
So, using simple statistical conclusions from our own American racing data why haven’t we attempted to come into line with obvious best-known safety protocols? Why haven’t we now set a goal requiring all American races to be run on synthetic or turf surfaces, and over 50% of our races to be run over a mile? Had we not been complacent in 2014, and set these same standards be met by 2018, 185 fewer horses would have died racing last year. In addition, the 2018 EID 1.68 fatalities per 1000 number would have been 1.05, far and away the lowest number ever in American racing history!
Of course, my presumption is that American racing, including racetrack executives, racing commissions, trainers and horse people associations are now more intelligent and honest about safety than they were five years ago. I also presume the convoluted American racing powers are willing to change and adopt “best known methods” for safety, and will also implement obvious safety medication protocols.
Racing surface and distance “safety” data is imminently clear and has absolutely nothing to do with opinion. The truth is out there, and has been for years, so how about we cut the crap and honestly address the obvious. Let’s take action on what we do know about safety in American racing rather than debating the intricacies of what we do not know?
Dave Astar is a race horse owner, stallion owner, breeder, 40 year business executive, and 50 year handicapper.