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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Few More Things

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, if you add up all the deaths, using the high estimate for Florida, you get 3,562 horses.  The study covers the three years from 2009 - 2011; so, if you divide 3,562 by 156 weeks, you, 22.83 horses.  Well, that's almost 24.  I guess the Times added some in for the states without data....those hotbeds of racing Arkansas and Idaho.  Or maybe they figured a week off each year around the holidays, in which case you get 23.28, and I remember from third grade math that you always round up when counting dead animals.

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.


mlnolan00 said...

You bring up a good point about the willingness and hastiness with which other segments of the sport will point fingers at trainers for breaking horses down without looking at what they may be doing in-house that contributes to unsoundness. This past weekend while handicapping the Claiming Crown, I couldn't help but wonder why the animals in those race who not only run once or twice a month, but win, aren't celebrated and retired with any stud value.
If hoses like Ribo Bobo, Major Marvel, and Deanallen'skitten are amongst the winningest horses of 2013, and therefore are not only durable but fast, yet get completely ignored by the mainstream (no mention of the entire Claiming Crown event on America's Best Racing) because they've run in claiming races. That's a problem. This is America, though, and it's easier to just point fingers at people less powerful and whine rather than take any accountability.

El Angelo said...

I have found it impossible to take Drape and the Times' "investigative" work seriously since his 2008 articles where he took everything IEAH told him at face value, such as that Benny the Bull and Kip Deville were worth $10 million and $20 million as sires. (BTB is currently standing for $2,000.) Everyone with a pulse knew those guys were crooks and charlatans, which the Deadspin piece in June beautifully illustrated. If the Times had done research and a piece like the Deadspin piece (even years later), I would take their commentary on horse racing a lot more seriously.

I guess that's my way of saying well-stated, Alan.

Figless said...

Agree the true reach in Hancock's opinion piece was connecting drugs with the breakdown rate, a statement that he HAS to know is untrue. Consequently his entire argument can be dismissed.

Your pointing back at Hancock's breeding industry for systematically and knowingly breeding these unsound animals for their own short term profit is a brilliant retort as well.

There are many at whom to point every time a horse dies, whether in training, racing or in the slaughterhouse and of all of them the only faction that regularly shows a profit are the commercial breeders.

Figless said...

PS - Obviously the State government's show a huge profit as well, but I guess its ok to use and abuse the horses so long as that money is paying for "education".

Steve in NC said...

I wish America would legalize drugs for people but ban them in horse racing.

But I still agree pretty strongly with your essay, Alan. Bringing the issue of drugs in racing into the open has already been accomplished and I don't see any license for anyone distorting facts now to make a point.

Now is the time to analyze the issues involved carefully based on evidence and logic, not emotionally powerful but totally irrelevant analogies like dog fighting.

To me, it seems logical that drugs contribute the breakdown problem but of course, eliminating drugs won't stop all breakdowns.

There are a myriad of good reasons to eliminate raceday meds and meds while in training. We don't need bogus reasons or bogus polls that don't use random samples of respondents.

And yes, as a horseplayer and even as someone who loves horses as animals, I can accept a certain number (don't ask me for that number) of breakdowns, and frankly, the concerns I do have about breakdowns are more about protecting jockeys than the horses.

I'd like to do what we can to make racing safer. But we all drive in cars and fly in planes. The goal should be reasonable steps to reduce risk. You can't eliminate it altogether without eliminating the sport.

Figless said...

Steve, if I were a more talented and concise writer I would have written your comment(s).

One other pet peeve is that many of the barbs seem aimed at NYRA more than the other racing jurisdictions, as if NYRA can unilaterally disarm in the medication war. To do so would be suicide.

My utopian version of horse racing would include ZERO meds and ZERO tolerance for cheaters at every track in every jurisdiction.

IF that could be enacted universally tomorrow I would sign on the dotted line.

One place to start would be banning race day meds with super testing on all Graded Stakes races, if a jurisdiction refuses the race loses Graded status. This seems the simplest first step to enact and would begin to strengthen the gene pool.

And if a horse tests positive in one of those races there should be significant penalties for the connections, including the owners.

Steve in NC said...

Figless, you do just fine and I would vote for your plan as a start. The only problem is that the sport is so in the thrall of its drug culture that it couldn't even maintain the Lasix ban for 2yos at the BC.

So it looks for the foreseeable that most likely nothing will happen from the racing authorities.

I guess there's an outside chance (50-1?) that Congress will experience a fit of bipartisan puritanism and unite in drastic action that will make the horsemen wish they themselves had structured some reforms along the lines you propose.

Figless said...

I would actually bet on that long shot, if racings powers that be don't get their act together soon the parties may discover a convenient bipartisan whipping boy.