Sensational headline aside, recent industry news hasn’t been all that kind of late when it comes to racehorse fatalities.

This comes as no real surprise as the horse racing industry continues to cling stubbornly to its status quo.  Whether it’s the unwillingness to seize opportunities such as television during the TV boom of the 1960’s or the current refusal to grasp consolidation and contraction that have made other U.S. pro sports the powerhouses they are today, racing’s stakeholders continue to provide mostly excuses for the sad and dwindling state of the game.

With culture change seemingly adverse to the many of the core factors involved in what was once the Sport of Kings, the media (both social and otherwise) continues to focus on death.  I fear all too soon, the story will shift from the death of this horse or that horse to the death of an industry seemingly content to chase boxing down the rabbit hole of modern irrelevance.

But that’s a big picture assessment. The little picture of late has been about death and luck.

The HBO series Luck was cancelled and that’s old news. I didn’t watch it past the pilot. I was befuddled as to why David Milch, a two-time Breeders’ Cup winner, wouldn’t cast the sport in a slightly better light. I’m all for being realistic and edgy, after all it’s “not TV, it’s HBO,” but having a horse break down in the pilot (perhaps the most watched episode) didn’t seem necessary to the developing story lines.

That said, I was planning to watch the rest of the first season based on various other viewers claims that the show was getting better, and then it was cancelled.  HBO claims it was cancelled due to the death of three horses, but most suspect it was a convenient out for a show with weak ratings.  If they couldn’t capture the core audience – horseman and racing fans and bettors – what was the likelihood that the general public would sign on?

Add to that, the typical PETA media campaign in the aftermath of HBO’s cancellation which Ray Paulick debunked beautifully yesterday.  His expose of their tactics and their subsequent admissions (of sorts) are well worth reading.  Click here.

Safe to say Luck and HBO did the industry no favors from beginning to end.

If only that were the last of it…

There has recently been hue and cry from England – of all places – about catastrophic breakdowns as well after five horses died during the first two days of racing at the Cheltenham Festival.  The story has received international coverage and there is plenty of social media buzz about the subject.

Here in the state’s Aqueduct has moved back to the main track two weeks early after a rash of breakdowns on the inner-track this winter.  Of course, no one knows why more horses than usual suffered catastrophic injuries this year, but one of the popular theories involves purses.


Like many issues in racing, it could be a math problem. Since November 30th, 17 horses have suffered fatal injuries and, in some circles, the high purses at Aqueduct are getting the blame.

For example, the bottom claiming level of $7,500 features a purse as high as $40,000.  Thus the winners share is worth more than three times the value of the horse and speculation runs that owners and trainers are running unfit horses looking to capture the inflated purses.

This seems like a blanket condemnation from my seat, but I don’t doubt that some outfits in these tough economic times might deliberately (and more often than not, accidentally) err on the wrong side of the purse account.

As a related aside, here is something from a recent Thoroughbred Times (March 17, 2012): “It is extremely difficult today for an honest horsemen with true sporting instincts , to make a living out of his stable unless he has a rich patron or an extremely capable stakes horse to carry him along…Sound familiar?  It was first published March 20, 1937.

AQUEDUCT, MARCH 16, 2012 (Note the empty seats)

To this day, in this still skulking economy, the words were never truer so how could anyone be surprised that everybody in New York isn’t pushing to whatever degree they are comfortable to get as many starts in while purses are high and many top stables are elsewhere?  With all our efforts to increase purses, most never gave much thought to the moral hazards such big pots might create.

In an attempt to draw conclusions, it would seem that Luck was unlucky. The circumstances of the three deaths over three years all had factors described as “atypical.”

Luck is likely the biggest factor at Cheltenham as well where the horses, people, racecourse conditions and weather are remarkably consistent year in and year out.

Barring a major variation with the inner track at Aqueduct, the high purses look to be the lone changed variable in that equation.  Human nature and its susceptibility to primary motivators (fear, guilt and greed) could well be the culprit in many cases.

While solid, scientific and useful answers are likely not forthcoming, all of this circles us back around to the core issue – the general public’s ever-increasing sensitivity to the well-being of the horses.

Of all the issues facing the industry, the public’s intolerance for something that has always been a part of horse racing – fatal breakdowns – seems to be one of the most difficult to solve. While no industry stakeholders can, or likely ever will, state what an acceptable level of fatalities is, the Jockey Club recently released stats that say that from January of 2009 until December of 2011 race-related fatalities were 1.91 per 1,000 starts.  Obviously that’s a fraction of 1%, but we live in an ever-connected world where perception consistently trumps reality with the outside world pushing us toward the unachievable number of zero.

When it gets to that point, we will all be out of luck.