Racing and horse deaths: The conversation has changed

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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 Horseracingwrongs.com has become a player in creating awareness of, literally, every racing-related horse death. Horserascingwrongs.com 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. Horseracingwrongs.com 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.

Breeders’ Cup spots on the line this weekend, top trainers hold keys to 2-year-old tests

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Sometimes, in assessing stakes races, it is best to look at the history of the race and see if there is a dominant factor in that history. This weekend’s racing features both the Champagne Stakes and the Miss Grillo Stakes, two Win and You’re In races for the Breeders’ Cup (coverage begins Saturday at 4 pm ET on NBC). For both races, you need to look no further than the “winning trainer” column, which provides some unavoidable facts:

  1. Since 2004, Todd Pletcher has won the Champagne Stakes a record-setting six times.
  2. In recent times, Chad Brown has asserted himself in this race, winning 3 of the last 6 runnings.
  3. In the 14 runnings of the Miss Grillo since 2008, Chad Brown has been the winning trainer 8 times.

All observations and handicapping of these two races must begin with these facts. Is there something that makes horses from these barns better than others? Not necessarily. But history tells us that these two barns have high-quality and expensive horses and they tend to get them to peak at this time of year. You can try to beat them at the betting windows, but be aware of the history that you are running into.

Further research brought up some interesting notes about these two races and their Breeders’ Cup divisions.

First, a look at the 2-year-old colt division. Since 2004 (when Todd Pletcher won the first of his 6 Champagne Stakes), three 2-year-olds have won the Champagne, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the 2-year-old Eclipse Award. They were War Pass (2007), Uncle Mo (2010) and Shanghai Bobby (2012).  Pletcher trained Uncle Mo and Shanghai Bobby, and Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito handled War Pass.

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Looking at the 2-year-old turf fillies, the dominance of Chad Brown is even more striking. Since 2008, when Chad Brown captured his first Miss Grillo and the first running of Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, four 2-year-old fillies have captured the Miss Grillo and the Juvenile Fillies Turf. They were Maram (2008), Lady Eli (2014), New Money Honey (2016) and Newspaperofrecord (2018). All four fillies were trained by Chad Brown.

A review of charts from the Champagne back to 2004 (the year of Todd Pletcher’s first winner in the race) reveals that he had 20 starters, with 6 wins, 3 seconds and 1 third. That means he has won 30% of the time and been in the money 50%.

A review of the charts from the Miss Grillo dating back to 2008 (Chad Brown’s first winner in the race) shows that he has had 23 starters, with 8 wins, 1 second and 4 thirds. That means he has won approximately 35% of the time and been in the money 56%.

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Storylines to Watch for 2022 Champagne Stakes

So, what does this mean for this year’s editions of these two “Win and You’re In” races for the 2022 Breeders’ Cup?

In the Champagne, it seems that the dominant trainers in the sport are putting forth the major contenders.

  • 2021 Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox is likely to start Verifying, who was a solid winner at Saratoga as a big favorite in his only career start.
  • The sport’s all-time winningest North American trainer is Steve Asmussen, who is rapidly closing in on 10,000 career wins. Asmussen, who won this race in 2020 with Jackie’s Warrior, will send out Gulfport, a very impressive son of Uncle Mo. Gulfport won his first two races by an average winning margin of almost 10 lengths. Then, he had some real misfortune in his next two starts, finishing 2nd in both races at Saratoga. In the Saratoga Special, he had major traffic problems that led to losing several lengths at the top of the stretch. As the favorite in the Hopeful, he endured a wide trip on a sloppy surface to be 2nd best again. With a clean trip, he will be a major contender in the Champagne.
  • As previously stated, Chad Brown has won the Champagne in 3 of its last 6 runnings. He is likely to enter Blazing Sevens, who is a son of Good Magic, the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner. After a big win in the first race of his career at Saratoga, Blazing Sevens endured a wide trip on a sloppy track in the Hopeful Stakes, and he should improve here, especially on a fast track.
  • The horse who beat Gulfport in the Hopeful was Forte, trained by the 6-time winner of this race, Todd Pletcher. The stretchout to a one-turn mile in the Champagne would have seemed to be made to order for his closing kick. At entry time, Pletcher chose to not enter Forte in the Champagne Stakes, in all likelihood because he plans to enter the horse in the Breeders’ Futurity next Saturday at Keeneland. The Breeders’ Futurity is a Win and You’re In race for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and can be seen on CNBC.

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Storylines to Watch for 2022 Miss Grillo Stakes

Moving on to the Miss Grillo, Chad Brown is likely to enter Free Look, who was an impressive late-closing winner of a Maiden race in her second career start. In her first start, she was a victim of a slow pace, and the best she could do from the back of the pack was close to be 3rd. She seems to be a horse who is likely to improve with more racing. Free Look is a daughter of the leading sire Tapit.

Two others to watch in the Miss Grillo are Be Your Best and Pleasant Passage. Be Your Best is undefeated in two starts for trainer Horacio DePaz. Her last start was the P.G. Johnson Stakes, and she displayed the stalking style that has led to wins in both of her starts. Another with a license to improve is Pleasant Passage, from the barn of legendary trainer Shug McGaughey. In her only career start, she rallied up the rail and endured a stretch battle to get up for a narrow win. She has outstanding grass breeding, and the experience of that win should work in her favor in this race.

It is hard to predict outcomes with lightly-raced 2-year-olds. What we do know is that two horses will win their way into two Breeders’ Cup races on Saturday. That’s the great thing about these “Win and You’re In” races… they are running for something other than purse money, and it often produces some outstanding outcomes.

Lookahead to 2022 Breeders’ Cup

These races lead up to two of the 14 championship races on November 4th and 5th. For those who have never watched an entire Breeders’ Cup, get ready for the rush of witnessing a world championship event every 35 minutes or so. It’s like the Olympics of our sport. Be ready to watch and wager, and you’re sure to come away with some great memories. If you pick some winners, you might come away with a nice profit, as well. The Breeders’ Cup…there’s nothing like it!

Pegasus on Jan. 28, Florida Derby on April 1 at Gulfstream

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. — Gulfstream Park announced the schedule for the 2022-23 Championship Meet, highlighted by the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational on Jan. 28.

Also on Pegasus day: The $1 million Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational, as well as the $500,000 Pegasus World Cup Filly & Mare Turf.

Gulfstream’s top Kentucky Derby prep race, the $1 million Florida Derby, will be run on April 1 as part of a card with 10 stakes races. Other top 3-year-old preps at Gulfstream in early 2023 include the $150,000 Mucho Macho Man on Jan. 1, the $250,000 Holy Bull on Feb. 4 and the $400,000 Fountain of Youth on March 4.

The Pegasus is returning for a seventh time. The format has changed several times in the race’s infancy; the purse structure for the Pegasus World Cup no longer requires owners to put up $1 million apiece for a spot in the starting gate for what was, at its inception, the world’s richest race with a purse that reached $16 million.

This much has remained constant: Winning the Pegasus changes a horse’s resume. No Pegasus winner has ever finished worse than sixth in the yearlong earnings among North American horses, and two past winners – Arrogate and Gun Runner – are two of the three highest-earning thoroughbreds in U.S. history.

Gulfstream’s Championship Meet runs from Dec. 26 through April 2, featuring 60 stakes races, 35 of them graded, and worth a combined $13.6 million.