There is a lesson to be learned in all the hand-wringing at the seven equine deaths at Saratoga Race Course since the grounds opened this spring, and it’s one that should apply to everything: read beyond the headlines.
If you are among the people who believes horse racing is cruel in and of itself, that’s certainly your right, and that’s one thing. But if you just hear or read “seven equine deaths” and immediately say how terrible that is and something should be done immediately to curb that, please understand that it is in no one’s interest to have the athletes everyone pays to see passing on.
Start with the owners. They’ve lost an investment and possibly-to-probably a horse they personally cared about. Some treat it more like a business than others, but no one wants to see an animal suffer a life-ending injury. The trainers and jockeys have lost business and an animal they care for, and the barn staff is usually broken up to the point that sometimes grooms of the euthanized horses are given the next day off because, as trainers have told me, they’re too upset to be any good.
Look at the particulars. Lakalas collapsed and died after breezing, possibly from a heart attack, on the Oklahoma Training Track on May 28. On July 6, Queen B fractured her right rear leg while breezing, but was sent to the Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital right across the street and a stone’s throw away in hopes of saving her life. Unfortunately, once there, she was euthanized when veterinarians determined the extent of her injury was too severe.
The Oklahoma Training Track is regarded as one of the best training tracks in the country, but it got a lot of action this spring before the meet started — from the several times I went, it seemed like more than usual. That should be taken into account.
There have been five more since the meet started July 21. Three horses — Wanztbwicked on July 22, Howard Beach on July 29 and Positive Waves on July 29 — suffered injuries while breezing on the main track, but again, there are important details. According to the state’s website, data.ny.gov, on equine death and breakdown reports, Howard Beach unseated his exercise rider, ran off and suffered a fracture to his right front leg. It isn’t clear if the injury happened before or after unseating the rider.
Two of the deaths have happened during the racing: Angels Seven on July 28 and Brooklyn Major on July 31. Angels Seven was euthanized as a result of a fractured front left leg on the inner turf course, and Brooklyn Major collapsed on the main track after finishing a race, likely from a heart attack.
Put that all together and see if you can spot a pattern, because a lot of officials from the New York Racing Association are looking for one. Training track, inner turf and main course; fractured front and rear legs, as well as heart attacks; five while training and two while racing; one that was brought to a clinic in the hopes of being saved. NYRA officials always want to make sure the horses are safe, but at this point there is no definitive cause.
The Saratoga meet is the country’s biggest and best, and all eyes are upon it. A search of the aforementioned website shows that in 2017, there have been 13 equine deaths at Aqueduct and 22 at Belmont Park, 10 at Finger Lakes since April 24 — a track with far fewer horses working and racing over it — and even three at Saratoga Gaming and Raceway. But you probably hadn’t heard that. And the same NYRA folks are concerned about the fatalities at Aqueduct and Belmont. Ditto with the people at Finger Lakes and the harness track. It’s an industry filled with caring people, but it can’t escape the risks.
Roughly speaking, a horse’s leg absorbs a load three times its weight on a straightaway and between five to 10 times its weight on a turn. The average horse is 1,000 pounds.
When there’s a spike in equine deaths, or they start to make the news, you’ll hear the line, “the only number NYRA cares about is handle.” It’s an unfair charge.