Let's get back to the thing about The New York Times, and their claim that an average of 24 horses die at racetracks each week. I called BS on that stat in this post, and I was wrong. Two errors on my part caused that misstatement: for one thing, I totally missed the memo that that particular stat was based on an actual compilation of incidents, and not from the Times' parsing language from chart comments which may, or may not, really indicate a serious injury, no less a fatal one. Completely missed the boat on that one. And secondly, I was responding specifically to the following characterization of the Times' statistic from the much ballyhooed piece by Arthur Hancock III on Paulick's site: "According to the New York Times, every week in the United States, 24 Thoroughbred horses die while racing." I used a back of the napkin calculation to cast doubt on that assertion. In fact, what Hancock wrote is not what the Times said. I should have gone straight to the source instead.
The source, as stated by Joe Drape himself on Twitter, is this state-by-state chart provided by regulators below, which appears down the right margin in the first of the Death and Disarray articles.
So, a few points. For one thing, if you accept the generally accepted notion that the fatality rate is 2 from every 1,000 starts (and I know some people who don't), I think my calculation that the number is closer to 12-15 who die while racing is probably fairly accurate.
Getting back to Hancock's piece, his assertion that the "Times reported that 24 Thoroughbred horses die a week while racing" is patently false. The Times did not report that. It reported that 22.83 horses a week died during racing and training from 2009 to 2011. (And that stat no doubt includes quarter horses as well, given the high number for New Mexico and, especially, the fact that half of the article in which it appeared was about that breed.) I got yelled at on Twitter for being heartless when I made the distinction between racing and training deaths. But I didn't make it, Hancock did, and falsely. It's perfectly fair for me to correct that. Nobody else seemed interested in doing so, not Paulick, nor all the people who sung the article's praises. Besides being based on a bogus analogy with dog fighting, Hancock's appeal was based on a falsehood. Actually, on two falsehoods, but we'll get to that shortly.
Drape tweeted that he always reports the truth. But, as I've written before, his version of the truth is sometimes different from mine. And the truth can come in different shades of truthfulness. For example, Drape is recently fond of reporting that a poll of horseplayers showed overwhelmingly that they tend to bet less because of suspected drug use. It is true that there was such a poll. What is not acknowledged however is that, as I reported here, the survey smacked of being a push poll, with leading questions asked to respondents directed there by HANA and Thoro-graph, sites where anti-drug sentiment flourish. That makes this truth a dubious one. I know two people who tell me that they would bet less if they didn't have juice trainers to follow, and that there are more where they come from with a similar outlook. I imagine I could go around the Aqueduct grandstand, ask leading questions to selected characters and come up with poll results drastically different than the Jockey Club's. If I published the result as fact, without the context, wouldn't that be as much of the truth as the Times' is (or isn't)?
Sometimes the Times reports truth that just isn't all that true. The Aqueduct Task Force specifically refuted the paper's blanket use of the phrase "powerful painkillers" to describe all prescription NSAIDs. Of course, you won't read that in the Times; especially considering that they published their article on the Task Force report the morning before it was released, no doubt to have it run on the front page on Friday rather than get lost in the weekend editions. I wrote about that, and other mischaracterizations of the report in this post.
And then there's the 24 horse a week claim itself. If Drape was really being truthful, he'd be reporting that a study based on fatality reports compiled from state regulators from 2009 - 2011 showed that approximately 24 horses a week died during that time, rather than repeatedly portraying it as a continuing and ongoing event, which it may, or may not, be. In addition, the Times' reporting clearly infers that these fatalities are caused almost exclusively by the use of legal and illegal drugs and medications. That brings me back to Mr. Hancock III. His assertion continued that "24 Thoroughbred horses die while racing and countless others are broken down and maimed for the rest of their lives because they are being drugged to enhance their performance."
That is certainly not true.....though one can surely understand why one would conclude that after reading the Times' series. Does drug use contribute to the number of deaths? Probably. But we all know that horses break down because it's a rough game. As I've surely noted before, we exploit these animals for our own entertainment and profit, and we do with them what best serves us, not what is best for their welfare. Otherwise, and only for one thing, the Triple Crown would be run on turf in the late summer and fall. But egads, perish the thought. So, it's actually quite convenient for a participant in the U.S. breeding industry like Arthur Hancock III to blame others for the problem, and to call for someone else, like the federal government, to deal with it! As we know, U.S. breeders are not breeding these horses for durability. They are breeding them for profit; for horses with the most "fashionable" bloodlines; for those who may, before their second biological birthday, be able to run a furlong in nine seconds under tack. You don't have to be a pedigree expert to know that the breed is far less sturdy than it was a few decades ago. Instead of pointing fingers, perhaps Mr. Hancock should be reflecting on his own role in the matter.
And maybe that goes for all of us. Everybody who is involved in some way nurtures the status quo by their participation. Only a few are actively trying to do something about it, and simply proselytizing on Twitter doesn't count. Horseplayers will take action about things they are really passionate about - especially when they feel that their wallets are threatened. I see people boycott tracks if their takeout is too high; shun synth races because they think it's too hard to win (and they took that attitude even at the beginning, when the artificial surfaces were being billed as a cure-all to the breakdown problem); or refuse to take their wife and daughter to Saratoga because it will now be too expensive to get in. They'll also take action if their blessed traditions are threatened in any way - just yesterday saw people threatening to boycott Churchill tracks because they don't like their points system for the Derby.
But I don't recall any organized boycotts of Aqueduct during the breakdown spate there. Do you? I haven't seen any movements to boycott dirt races in favor of those on turf or synth because they are believed to be safer. The issues of horse safety and drug use are not even amongst the criteria used by HANA in their top racetrack ratings. Their #4 track for 2013 is Tampa Bay Downs, which recently came under scathing criticism for being too lenient on cheaters. But hey, their takeout is low!
Believe me, I'm not judging anyone here (except for those, such as the members of the Joe Drape God Squad on Twitter, who would judge me for having the nerve to question what the Times reports). Let's be brutally frank and honest here. If someone said to me: Look, you can still have this sport of horse racing and all the joy (and heartbreak) and economic benefits that it brings. But despite our best efforts, no matter what we have tried, 22.83 horses are going to continue to die every week. What do you want to do?
I know what my answer would be. And I suspect that I'm hardly alone.