For those who haven’t already heard, Santa Anita Park has experienced a troubling number of racehorse deaths this year. Twenty-three horses have died since the beginning of the year. The track was closed for inspection for much of the month of March. While most news reports have focused on the bad weather and track conditions, these factors don’t seem out of step with other locales. Fairly sophisticated analysis of the track conditions have been conducted throughout the season, and no answers were uncovered. Another horse died shortly after the track re-opened leading many to call for a longer suspension and a more thorough investigation.
It’s difficult-to-impossible to categorically rule out environmental factors (intentional or otherwise, on-track or off-track) that may have been affecting the racehorses. But it’s notable that there have been no reports of widespread horse doping outside of the regulations put forth by the horse racing industries and local authorities. Many horse experts believe many factors may be contributing to spate of horse deaths. While bad weather may feel “anomalous,” unusual weather events are only going to become more common as time goes on. Breeding practices that continue to prioritize speed over other health and performance characteristics may also be partially responsible.
What’s at Stake?
This weekend’s Kentucky Derby always puts a spotlight on horse racing as it works to show the industry’s best side and is a larger cultural phenomenon with its fashionable hats, mint juleps, and rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home.” But this spotlight doesn’t suddenly get turned off if something goes wrong on the track and a horse must be euthanized.
Even without the recent spate of racehorse deaths at Santa Anita, the U.S. horse racing industry has some investigating and explaining to do. As this report from the NYTimes points out, about 10 racehorses died per week in 2018 at U.S. horse racing tracks. This is a mortality rate 2.5-5 times higher than in other parts of the world. To give you some perspective of how bad things have been at Santa Anita, since the beginning of the horse racing year, there have been 23 deaths in 44 racing days—or about one euthanized horse every other racing day.
Horse Health = Industry Health
The short and long-term trends have collided into something of a low point and many people speculating that it represents an existential threat to the horse racing industry, which is far removed from its hey-day. There does still seem to be time to turn it around, but that time may also be running short.
At CogginsTests.com, we have a unique perspective but also a fairly universal reaction to the current troubles in the horse racing industry. We believe horses are magnificent animals—graceful, intelligent, social. Not to mention the physical feats they’re capable of. We’re saddened when we hear a horse had to be put down. We don’t believe horse racing itself has to be put down, but we also recognize that what first appears to only affect a few dozen horses may, in fact, represent a more systemic threat to the equine population. And just like industry-wide mandatory testing requirements were needed to get equine infectious anemia under control, a solution of similar scale may be needed to reverse the trend of horse racing fatalities.