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Racing and horse deaths: The conversation has changed

Santa Anita Fatalities Horse racing

A few horses and riders are seen on the track while members of the California Horse Racing Board weigh new safety and medication rules in the wake of 22 horse deaths at Santa Anita Park, during a meeting at the track in Arcadia, Calif., Thursday, March 28, 2019. The board is considering whether to ban the use of medication and whips on racing days. If approved, Santa Anita would become the first racetrack in the nation to impose such restrictions. (AP Photo/Amanda Lee Myers)


ARCADIA, Calif. – Your attention is called to a famous piece of writing. The story – a column, technically – was written by the great W.C. Heinz, and published on July 29, 1949 in The Sun, a New York City newspaper which was distributed continuously from 1833 to 1950 and ceased publication just 159 days after Heinz’s piece was written. The story is called Death of a Racehorse. It is taught in journalism classes, discussed late into the night by overserved writers of all types (and all ages) and in general revered by those who treasure the masterful economy of its language and forcefulness of its prose, delivered on deadline, in just 964 words. There are writers who can quote long sections from memory (guilty), and others who are just plain tired of hearing about its wonder. You can read it here.

I am sharing the story now, not for any of those literary reasons, but for the manner in which Heinz describes its central action: The breakdown and subsequent euthanasia suffered by a promising two-year-old colt named Air Lift. “Full brother of Assault,” as the column notes, quoting a turf writer’s weighty press box aside, as the horses were loaded into the gate at Aqueduct, for a five-and-half-furlong race. Assault was the 1946 Triple Crown winner, still racing three years later.

What happened on that day was that Air Lift broke down in the turn, apparently just as he was making a move on the leaders. Heinz describes the moment and the reactions, and writes briskly through the aftermath until the moment when Air Lift is put to death in the stable area, away from the crowd. This is how the story ends:

They moved the curious back, the rain falling faster now, and they moved the colt over close to a pile of loose bricks. Gilman had the halter and Catlett had the gun, shaped like a bell with the handle at the top. This bell he placed, the crowd silent, on the colt’s forehead, just between the eyes. The colt stood still and then Catlett, with the hammer in his other hand, struck the handle of the bell. There was a short, sharp sound and the colt toppled onto his left side, his eyes staring, his legs straight out, the free legs quivering.

“Aw ----" someone said.

That was all they said. They worked quickly, the two vets removing the broken bones as evidence for the insurance company, the crowd silently watching. Then the heavens opened, the rain pouring down, the lightning flashing, and they rushed for the cover of the stables, leaving alone on his side near the pile of bricks, the rain running off his hide, dead an hour and a quarter after his first start, Air Lift, son of Bold Venture, full brother of Assault.

There is much to admire in Heinz’s writing: The tightness of each sentence, the active verbs, the evocative descriptions. The avoidance of unnecessary fluff. But in 2019, the piece is also remarkable for what it lacks: Outrage. Sadness, empathy, pathos. But no outrage. Hold that thought.

Forty-one years after Air Lift went down at Aqueduct, Go For Wand collapsed in the closing strides of the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Distaff, eight miles away from Aqueduct, at Belmont Park. Go For Wand, a brilliant three-year-old filly, had been engaged in a breathtaking stretch duel with four-year-old Bayakoya, when her right ankle snapped. I was at Belmont that day, working for Newsday; the gasp that went up from the crowd of more than 51,000 was unlike anything I had heard at a sporting event. Go for Wand staggered to her three healthy feet and attempted to finish her race, a scene nearly as agonizing to watch as the original collapse. Ultimately she was euthanized on the track, hidden from the crowd by a green screen.

Among those covering Go for Wand’s breakdown was my Newsday colleague Paul Moran, a splendid writer who always skillfully and passionately balanced writing about the beauty of racing with reporting on its underbelly. Paul died six years ago at the age of 67. This is from his award-winning story that day:

The group at the rail before which Go for Wand stood in the final moments of her life fell into shock, which yielded to almost a tear-stained, speechless anger. How could a fate so terrible befall a filly so special, a New York filly performing before those who appreciated her most, who sent her to the post a 3-5 favorite against an older champion from California? And why on this day? Why on this brilliant autumn afternoon graced by the ultimate in equine competition?

Why are we here at the intersection of tragedy and turf writing? Because in both Heinz’s and Moran’s stories there is sadness and shock. But there is also an acceptance that horses will die, tragically but also routinely. In that acceptance there is an instrument with which we can measure the current state of affairs. On the day of Go for Wand’s death, the last words of a sidebar written by Joe Durso in The New York Times were a quote from Debbie McAnally, the wife of Bayakoya’s trainer, Ron McAnally: “I can hardly talk right now. It’s terrible when something like this happens. And to have a great filly like this, and on a day like this. They give their lives for our enjoyment.”

Racing has gathered this week at Santa Anita Racetrack in Southern California for the 36th Breeders’ Cup – 14 championship races – five on Friday and nine more on Saturday – involving many of the fastest horses on earth (watch Saturday’s races starting at 4 pm on NBCSN or on the NBC Sports app). It is a showcase for the sport’s best, an event that swims upstream for buzz in the middle of the NFL and college football seasons – not for lack of effort or star power, but simply because of the calendar. The fields are typically stellar, the stakes typically high. Legacies will be forged. Millions will be earned, and lost.

But that is not the weekend’s only story. For most of this year, American racing has been consumed by a very real struggle for its future. At the core of that struggle is rising public consciousness that hundreds of horses die every year in support of a gaming and entertainment exercise, and sometimes for the financial enrichment of the already rich (as well as the financial survival of some who are very poor racetrack workers, a powerful complicating factor). This newfound – but not new – reality took root during a terrible winter and spring right here at Santa Anita, when 23 horses died between late December and late March.
By the end of Santa Anita’s spring meeting in June, the total had reached 30, a season-long number that is more in line with historical norms. But those norms suddenly feel not so normal. Six more have died in the fall meeting that began in late September. Sixteen died at Saratoga. Five died in 13 days at Keeneland this fall after four died last spring. These are just at major tracks.

Here in the fall of 2019, it is unimaginable that anyone in thoroughbred racing, whether owner, trainer, jockey, groom, hot walker or racetrack official – or any of their wives or partners – would speak the words “They give their lives for our enjoyment.” Today, every death is news. Acceptance is no longer acceptable.

People inside the game are seemingly beginning to comprehend this. “There is a heightened awareness, now, with all of this, and obviously something’s got to change,” says Tom Durkin, who called races for NBC and the New York Racing Association until his retirement in 2014, and retains small ownership stakes in several horses. (Durkin also called the Go for Wand-Bayakoya race… “As bad as it gets,’’ he says).

At the early October International Conference of Horse Racing Authorities in Paris, Rick Arthur, equine medical director of the California Horse Racing board, said, “The status quo is not good enough. Horse racing must change.”

Since the Santa Anita issue rose last winter, racing voices have spoken from two fundamental positions. One: Special interest groups are out to get us. Two: We love our horses. Both ineffective stances.

The first: I talked last week with widely respected Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella. He first acknowledged the problem. “The situation we’re in is scary,” he said. “Going back to normal [death rates] is probably not satisfactory.” But he also quickly deflected blame, with a pivot that has become the industry’s signature move. “There’s a pretty big movement among the animal rights people to stop racing. It’s like they’re sitting and waiting and hoping somebody gets hurt, so they can make a big deal out of it.”

It’s true that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has aggressively pressured racing, not just in 2019 but for many years. PETA’s positions are viewed by racing insiders as unduly extreme. However it remains instructive that Santa Anita’s public response last March – in an open letter from Stronach Group President Belinda Stronach – included a quote from PETA senior vice president Kathy Guillermo, a conciliatory inclusion that many inside racing found discomforting. It’s also true that the website has become a player in creating awareness of, literally, every racing-related horse death. has been operated for six years by Patrick Battuello, out of his home near Albany, New York. Battuello uses media reports, race charts and the Federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to catalogue breakdowns and other deaths. devotees have also organized protests at race tracks. They are not only a grassroots operation, but a guerilla operation.

It’s not surprising that racing people are annoyed by PETA and Battuello, because they are attacking their livelihood and challenging their humaneness. But that annoyance also walks dangerously close to the line separating righteous outrage from shooting the messenger.

The second: Yes, racing people love horses. Absolutely. But love of horses is an emotional state, not a strategy. And while loving horses, racing people also make their living on the backs of those same horses, an irresolvable conflict.

Racing people have repeatedly suggested to me, and others, that the current crisis is a public relations battle. At the same Paris conference where Arthur spoke, Dr. Paul-Marie Gadot, a French racing official, said, “The problem is not in the level of care we bring to our horses, the problem is in the media. We must change the public messaging. We must occupy the social networks with beautiful stories. War takes place in the media space; the response must be in the media space.” Okay. Beautiful stories about racing are great; I’ve written many of them. But they are not a response to the issue of horse welfare.

The response is challenging, but the goal is non-negotiable: Fewer dead horses. Far fewer. Will this satisfy the activists, and their followers? Battuello unambiguously seeks the abolition of racing; PETA seeks widespread safety initiatives. It might be impossible for racing to fully satisfy either of them, but racing must try, and the public relations issue could take care of itself. Racing needs to remember the fragility of its position. Try explaining to a layperson why horse racing is essential, and why horses must die.

In one sense, the topic is not entirely new. There have been previous spikes in horse deaths: 12 deaths in 22 days at Aqueduct in the winter of 2015. New rules were implemented to prevent unfit horses from racing; the lowest claiming level was raised. Death rates drifted back to historical norms. (That phrase again). This, too, has been a strategy in racing: Survive the spikes and assume that watchdogs and media will move on to the next story. This is not a terrible plan; the media world is a noisy place in 2019. Not long ago, the NFL was under siege over brain trauma, and television ratings dropped. This might have been due to multiple factors. Current ratings are at record levels. Brain trauma remains a topic, but it has been pushed ever so slightly to a more distant corner. Accepted. Perhaps racing can survive this spike. But the next? And waiting for activists and media to simply lose interest, rather than fully and lastingly addressing the problem, is daring at best and suicidal at worst.

In fairness, racing is being asked to respond to another societal movement that it either did not see coming or was unprepared to address. In reporting this story, I interviewed pedigree expert Sid Fernando, whose job is partly to help breeders create potentially successful matings for their stallions and mares. “There’s been a huge societal change in the way we view race horses,” says Fernando. “People weren’t tracking breakdowns in the 70s. They happened, and people felt bad, but nothing [was done]. I subscribe to the view that horses are livestock, not pets. But many people view them as pets, and that’s a huge part of this.”

In this vein, Durkin directed me to author Susan Orlean’s Rin Tin Tin, The Life and the Legend, her 2011 biography of the famous movie dog. One of the subplots of Orlean’s excellent book is the changing relationship between humans and animals (dogs in particular, but it’s rational to presume the human-horse relationship as evolving similarly). Orlean wrote:

... In the United States, pet ownership was exploding. Between 1947 and 1953, the number of dogs in the United States grew from 17 million to 22 million, and the dog population was growing twice as fast as the human one. It was more than just numbers, though; the way dogs had lived with us had changed. They were not living with us in a shed in the backyard; they were living inside the house as part of the family. ... People began to know dogs more and idealize them less. They became interested in stories about loving dogs, rather than stories about marveling at them as superheroes.

This was many years ago. But it’s the type of ongoing evolution that could gradually chip away at the acceptance of horse deaths as part of racing, and then become accelerated by a spike like last spring’s at Santa Anita. Arthur acknowledged this at his speech in France: “Racing must adapt to society’s changing ethical standards,” he said. “Or it will not survive.”

On Wednesday morning, New York-based Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey stood outside Barn 44 on the Santa Anita backstretch, where his Breeders Cup Classic contender Code of Honor is stabled for the week. He’s forced himself to consider his own work.

“Maybe you have a horse that’s not doing as well as you’d like, but you think, let’s try one more race.’ Maybe don’t run that one more race. There’s obviously a huge awareness now. We’ve all got to work together to make things better – trainers, owners, racetrack operators. If we don’t make things better, I don’t know what the end result might be.”

In response to the spate of deaths at Santa Anita last spring, track ownership implemented stricter rules regarding medication and pre-race veterinary testing. Since the death of the filly Eight Belles, past the finish line of the 2008 Kentucky Derby, racing deaths have dropped by 16%, but they have been virtually flat for four years (1.62 deaths per 1,000 starts to 1.54, 1.61 and 1.68 in the subsequent three years). The numbers are significantly lower on turf and synthetic surfaces, but the U.S. racing industry has swung away from synthetic tracks in recent years, citing an increase in soft tissue injuries and respiratory issues, along with maintenance problems and complaints from handicappers that synthetic races are too challenging to pick. And this, from Fernando, the pedigree expert: “There’s a much lower fatality rate on synthetic, but breeders here want dirt, because the dirt horse is the most sought-after horse [financially], around the world.”

Here at Santa Anita on Thursday morning, trainer Mark Casse, who will saddle War of Will in the Classic, issued a full-throated endorsement of synthetic tracks. “They’re going after everything but the real culprit,’’ said Casse.

“Lasix, shockwave therapy. It we went to all synthetics, the number [of breakdowns] would drop significantly.’’ Casse trains and races horses not only on dirt tracks in the U.S., but also extensively at Woodbine, in Canada, which is a synthetic tracks. “The sport is chasing the wrong rabbit,’’ says Casse.

Every solution has rebuttals. Every suggestion is expensive and disruptive. Racing is in need of a centralized governing body that could unite its 38 state racing commissions. The public mandate here is unblinking: Far fewer horse deaths.

It is possible racing can endure this chapter, but the next is close behind. There is a voice that every horse lover hears: As the starting gate is loaded, that voice whispers: Get them all home safely.

That whisper has become a scream.