After making many mistakes in my life, I finally achieved some success by learning to go to where the data took me. As a statistical quality student and teacher, I have been both satisfied and shocked by “discovered” truths that emerge from a properly conducted analysis. I’ve been satisfied because sometimes the results match my internal biases, opinions and beliefs. I have also been shocked because the results often shake me to my core, differing from those same biases, opinions and beliefs.
There are very few things I enjoy more than seeing people or systems improve once discovered truth is revealed and accepted. On the other hand, nothing makes me more angry than political charlatans who ignore truths, manipulate people, rely on foolish opinions and continue damaging activity. It is with this in mind that I write this blog.
In 2019, racing fatalities have become a huge media headline. Of course, the media cares more about attention, readers or viewers than the truth. Nevertheless, dysfunctional American Racing powers have handled the media attention the way they have handled most things over the last few decades. They are statistically sloppy, inconsistent and political. The industry has slowly, inconsistently, and randomly, put forth partial baby safety steps. These steps will do very little to improve the “equine safety system” nationwide. In other words, American Racing powers have deployed the same failed routine in 2019 as they have for decades.
Yep, because the American Racing Industry has treated this recent media fatality onslaught just like they have treated everything else, with awful consumer awareness and “undisciplined” statistical logic, the media now treats every racing fatality as evidence of an evil and mean industry, which seems willing to sacrifice noble animals for profit.
So, let’s lay out the Real Truths on this subject.
1. Santa Anita, the epicenter of the American Racing problem according to the media, actually had one of their lowest equine fatality counts in the last 9 years. Yep, only 30 horses died during the December 2018 through June 2019 horse racing meet. That 30-horse fatality total is much lower than the prior decade annual average of 40.2!
2. Unfortunately, the 30 deaths mean nothing statistically. We need to relate the actual racing population at a racetrack to the fatalities. Santa Anita had only 5404 starts during the recent meet. That results in 1 “racing or training” death per every 180 starts, and here’s the thing. That number is absolutely NORMAL and should have been expected! The prior decade reflected 1 death for every 188 starts at Santa Anita.
3. The early part of the recent Santa Anita meet resulted in a much higher (more than double) rate of fatalities than the later part of the meet. The why of this statistical variation cannot be discovered. Santa Anita has claimed that their minor safety changes, made in the middle of the meet, were the reason for a decline in fatalities. I think that’s BS and the real reason for the variation was the racetrack surface and massive rains, but I cannot prove this. Nevertheless, the reason cannot be discovered because of the sloppy way in which data is maintained and controlled.
4. Jerry Hollendorfer was suspended. He had a trainer fatality rate outside of normal statistical control limits. He might not have been the only one, but I do not have data on this. He, and any other trainer outside of normal control limits, should have been put on notice that their procedures and fatality rate will be monitored to the point that if they exceed a specific rate over a certain time period (say a rolling 6-month period) they will be suspended. No one should have been summarily suspended without “disciplined statistical control metrics” already in place!
Hollendorfer’s Santa Anita fatality rate was high at 1 “racing or training” death per 40 starts. Now, remember that the Santa Anita death rate was 1 “racing or training” death per 180 starts (near the normal expectation of 188) during the meet. Hollendorfer’s fatality rate was over 4 times higher than the average. During the same time frame, his fatality rate at Golden Gate was 1 “racing or training” death per 110 starts, bringing his California average fatality rate to 1 death per 63 starts.
(FYI, a good analyst could create “suspension control metrics” related to fatalities, and I find it ridiculous that these do not exist and were not put in place for all trainers after the suspension.)
5. Sloppy statistical handling in American Racing demonstrates an uncaring lack of control. The national Equine Injury Database (EID) counts “only” racing fatalities within 72 hours of a race. The data is not audited and self-reported by racetrack. Many tracks do not report. Many racetracks that do report do not allow their EID results to be published. Each state’s racing commission controls and publishes fatality data differently. Fatality control metrics per trainer do not exist. Training fatalities are not counted in the EID, even though they would increase the death count by 50% to 250% in some years at some racetracks. Yep, at racetracks like Santa Anita you can take what they report to the EID and almost always double those deaths every year to get near the total fatality figure.
Personally, I can’t believe anyone with a shred of quality understanding would have designed the EID. Not only is it devoid of quality control but the core metric of fatalities per 1000 starts, is obtuse and means nothing to the average consumer. At least deaths per start is relatable. For example, knowing a trainer is responsible for an equine death per 40 starts, or a racetrack is responsible for a death every 180 starts (which is every 2 to 3 racing days), is meaningful.
6. There is no transitional plan to improve the equine safety system in America. A national oversight structure for American racing does not exist. The result of this foolish flaw is that any improvement, or the implementation of “best known” safety methods in the American Racing Safety System, is inconsistent.
There are best known safety methods, racing surfaces, inspection protocols and medication protocols. Today New York has a “racing” fatality rate that’s nearly half of the Santa Anita and Churchill Downs rate. New York came close to cutting their “racing” fatalities in half after a 2012 100-page report and analysis conducted resulted in improvements. Data in Europe, and even America, prove that synthetic surfaces will cut dirt racing fatalities dramatically (from 50% to 125%). Some racetracks conduct pre-race veterinary inspections. Europe’s procedures and methods result in approximately half the fatalities American racing suffers from.
Like I said earlier, the data leads to truth. My truths in this blog come from gathering data elements residing in state racing commission reports, the EID, verified news reports, Equibase and other public sources. The truths are as accurate as the underlying data.
The media and some consumer groups were entirely unfair in their coverage of racing fatalities. American Racing equine fatalities have not shockingly gone up but, in fact, have gone down. However, the new bright light of equine safety accountability has shown that the American Racing safety system is woefully less effective than is could and should be. We endanger horses, which also endangers riders, beyond all scientific reason. Best known methods, and proven models of safety, exist not only in Europe but also in pockets of North America. Unfortunately, this leads to one more conclusion.
American Racing powers are disingenuous. Regardless of their consumer patronizing comments or baby step safety changes, American Racing’s deluded principles of profitability generally trump the implementation of top tier safety measures. If they didn’t, a quality controlled national safety transition plan would exist, and every American racetrack would have a plan to replace their dirt tracks with Tapeta!
Consumer groups, the media, American racing executives and horse association board members have all been wrong in different ways, regarding equine safety. I now can only encourage all parties to understand that facts do not cease to exist simply because they are ignored.
I hope American Racing executives begin to understand that our industry demise was caused by ignoring consumer desires. We will never reverse this demise by continuing safety practices which consumers find distasteful. A comprehensive multi-year equine safety transition plan is a place to start.
Dave Astar is a race horse owner, stallion owner, breeder, 40 year business executive, and 50 year handicapper.