After a lifetime of loving the sport of horse racing, and running corporate quality control operations for over 40 years, I hate to say it but Thoroughbred racing is getting the black eye it deserves. Racing has been operationally mishandling issue after issue for several decades. The uproar surrounding the recent rash of horse fatalities at Santa Anita is just more of the same.
There was a time when I thought I could be part of the sport’s solution. I joined local Thoroughbred boards and councils, presented to our state’s Racing Commission, and met with racing executives. I spent years preparing run charts, quality control limit graphs, scatter diagrams, comparative analysis charts, correlative statistics and trended predictions until I realized that the same quality control techniques commonly used to “assure quality” in most professional industries were only welcome in the Thoroughbred business when they were complimentary to the political hacks who controlled Thoroughbred organizations.
Those same political hacks, to this day, do not realize that their action and inaction has made them the authors of a horrible industry demise. In fact, the Thoroughbred foal population in the United States is half of what it was just 28 years ago, parimutuel revenue (when properly indexed for inflation) is half of what is was just 15 years ago, and racing is now so massively subsidized by other gaming revenue in most states that the sport will never stand on its own again!
With that in mind, here are just a few recent headlines that have me saying, “Enough is Enough”:
Battle of Midway Euthanized After Training Breakdown (2/23/19)
Another Horse Dies During Training at Santa Anita Park (2/25/19)
Expert from Kentucky to examine Santa Anita track after horse deaths (2/26/19)
Santa Anita Racetrack closes for three days in wake of 19 horse deaths (2/26/19)
Santa Anita track deemed OK for racing after rash of horse deaths amid rainy conditions (2/28/19)
Santa Anita Park: Racing Suspended Indefinitely after 21st Horse Death (3/6/19)
21 Horse Deaths Haunt Santa Anita Racetrack While Problem Remains Unclear (3/9/19)
Santa Anita Resumes Limited Training Amid Probe of Horse Deaths (3/13/19)
22nd Horse Dies at Santa Anita Park after track declared safe (3/14/19)
Santa Anita Bans Drugs and Whips after Spate of Horse Deaths (3/14/19)
That last headline is a biggie because Santa Anita is banning same day medication, limiting whips, expanding out of competition testing and doing a few other things that they believe will improve quality and safety. Other racetracks in the United States may follow suit but who knows? I am thankful that one racetrack is going to try and impart higher quality into the sport, but I doubt that those changes have much to do with the Santa Anita fatality incidents. So, here’s what I think a properly trained quality operator would do, and also a perfect illustration of why a nationwide authority should control racing, rather than politically motivated and often unqualified state by state regulators.
First, every key process indicator in professional business operations should have quality control limits. Operators must know, not guess, when they have a problem. You will NEVER create quality in your company or industry until you find a way to establish upper and lower quality control limits for key quality indicators, such as equine fatalities per workout, per race, by surface, by distance, etc. You must always know beyond a shadow of a doubt, WHEN you have a problem and are outside the statistical control limits, particularly when equine and human safety is paramount!
Second, proper root cause problem solving is based upon inspection, testing and comparative analysis. Specific to the current Santa Anita situation, they should have an independent engineering firm drill at least 5 bore holes each 3 to 4 feet apart coming out from the rail. These should be drilled at every racing pole deep enough to inspect the subsurface and drainage system. This would allow them to the scientifically examine the elements and mixture (sand, silt, gravel, etc.) of each layer, for both the dirt and turf racing surfaces. Then the same independent firm should be sent to the 3 consistently best racetracks in the United States related to fatality rate, and perform the exact same bore hole test analysis. Then all “comparative” data should be made public, (quality organizations are fully transparent with their consumers) to either declare the surfaces safe, or to mitigate the issues by reworking the entire track to replicate the “best known” racing surface safety practices.
So for those of you that have asked, this is what I would do, and I would take no prisoners in the process! People would either get on board, learn about quality and embrace a full-fledged quality process, or find another job. Racing has no time to waste!
I will always love horses, and Thoroughbred racing was is my bones from the first day my dad decided to sneak me into a racetrack in Chicago. However, my passion for the sport has been slowly obliterated by the dunderheads who continue to make all the wrong moves to stabilize the once great sport of Thoroughbred racing. Their lack of understanding related to consumers, quality control and variation is simply mind numbing. I have reconciled myself to the fact that they may never learn that they are not part of any solution by attending meetings, discussing administrative minutia, acting as a racing shills, denying problems or ignoring them until they are forced to acknowledge their existence. In fact, many of these people have been part of the problem for far too long.
I hope racing supports the changes at Santa Anita nationwide, but I already know they will not. I also hope Santa Anita takes the steps required to assure quality and racing safety exists. Until then, enough is enough!
Such is life in the Thoroughbred business.
Dave Astar is a race horse owner, stallion owner, breeder, 40 year business executive, and 50 year handicapper.