The Sport of Kings
It was sweltering in Saratoga Springs, New York, on the second Sunday of August, when 400 racing executives decided to discuss the dead horse situation. The horsemen had filled a ballroom at the Gideon Putnam, a gargantuan brick resort near the town’s famous racetrack, for the 67th annual “Round Table Conference On Matters Pertaining to Racing.” Specifically, one matter pertained a lot to racing: the possible end of it. The past six months had produced protests across the country, a flood of articles investigating the industry, and calls from legislators for an outright racing ban. At the conference that morning, panic levels reached such unprecedented heights the program dragged more than 40 minutes past noon—the time when, in better years, attendees would shuffle off to lunch at the races. Later, Jockey Club President James Gagliano would recall it and sigh: “There were some cold lunches at the track that day.”
The panic concerned a string of incidents at Santa Anita Park, an old-school racetrack in Southern California known as “the Great Race Place.” Last February, a horse called Battle of Midway, a recent Breeders’ Cup winner and something of a steed celebrity, suffered what racers call a “catastrophic breakdown”—a fatal fall. During a routine training, the 5-year-old bay tripped at the top stretch and shattered the bone just above his hoof. He required immediate euthanization. When the Los Angeles Times reported the incident, the paper noted that Santa Anita, barely two months into its season, had experienced an unusual number of horse deaths—19, to be exact, three of them in just a matter of hours. In response, the park closed and launched an investigation. They hired a University of Kentucky safety specialist to inspect their track’s surface. Within 48 hours, he gave the thumbs up. The park reopened, officials calling the facility “one hundred percent ready.” Three days later, another horse died.
On March 5, after yet another death, Santa Anita announced it would close again, “effective immediately.” But by the end of the month, the park again resumed racing, and the death toll kept rising. After the 22nd death, the Los Angeles County District Attorney opened a criminal investigation into the track. After the 23rd, Sen. Diane Feinstein called on the park to halt operations, and the California legislature expedited a bill that would allow the state to “immediately suspend” racing for equine safety (it passed into law after the season ended). At death No. 26, the editorial board of the L.A. Times ran a piece titled: “Enough horse deaths.” In June, at 29 dead and counting, the California Horse Racing Board, a regulatory agency, asked the park to close for the last six days of the season. They refused. The 30th horse died that weekend. Since the current season started on Dec. 27, nine more have followed—one just last Saturday.
As a general rule, racing is an insular world. Horsemen are wary of attention; newcomers could be activists or, worse, vegan. “Are you a horse person,” one guy asked me, frowning like the barkeep of an old saloon, “or an outsider?” Until recently, the sport’s cryptic vernacular, abstruse handicapping rules, and generally feudal vibe made it easy for enthusiasts to keep to themselves. But the crisis put a spotlight on the industry. “It has been a horrific year,” David Fuscus, a bespectacled crisis communications manager, told the Saratoga Springs round table in his presentation. “Ninety percent of the American public was exposed to or had the ability to read a story on the fatalities at Santa Anita.” Still, for all the coverage, few clear answers emerged to explain just why, exactly, these horses died, or how, in a moment of constant political turmoil, the crisis had captured public outrage and despair.
There were no answers at the round table that morning. But a nagging anxiety loomed over the audience. “If we didn’t know before,” Jockey Club Chairman Stuart S. Janney III said in his opening remarks, “we all know now what it’s like living under a dark cloud.” It was the cloud of an elite, private world whose way of life was at risk—the cloud A-Rod probably sensed when that steroid clinic stopped answering his calls, or that sent Astros second baseman Jose Altuve into schoolgirl giggles when asked about his jersey. It was a cloud of concern—that horse racing was poised to follow dog racing, or cock fighting, or fox tossing, or goose pulling, or any other dated pastime, forgotten in the archives of bygone games. The sport of kings seemed at risk of extinction.
“It has been a horrific year.”
The Santa Anita Problem
On a Saturday last February, a few weeks before news of the first Santa Anita deaths broke, a trainer named Librado Boracio was pacing the park’s stables. The track was hosting an important race, a key breeding ground for the Kentucky Derby, and Boracio was antsy. He had a horse to run—a 3-year-old bay called Kid Cantina—and the weather was bad. Light rain had broken into downpour. Plus, the gelding had some injuries. The trainer had been icing his leg for days. Still, Boracio had never trained a horse with a chance of going national and his owner wanted to race. So, Kid Cantina took off with the gunshot. But just seconds out of the gate, the horse stopped short. The jockey dismounted and eyed Kid Cantina’s left front leg. Medics rushed onto the track and outfitted a splint. The horse was dead within the hour.
Boracio has a football player’s build, with slicked black hair, paper-white teeth, and a breathless, Gilbert Gottfried rasp. He’s a natural storyteller, prone to excited outbursts of narration, a tic he puts to use as a filmmaker, most recently in a documentary called The Grand Scam (spoiler: the scam is federal income tax). In 20 years of racing, Boracio said, he never had a catastrophic breakdown. Last year, he had two. Three weeks after Kid Cantina “went wrong,” as horsemen put it, another died on the track—a gelding named Just Forget It. Boracio was mystified. Unlike the first, this horse had been healthy. He had never even raced. The next day, the first news story of the Santa Anita deaths broke. Within hours, thousands were asking the very thing Boracio was wondering: what, exactly, was happening to these horses?
That’s a question Santa Anita and several government bodies spent the past year trying to answer. In April, the Los Angeles County District Attorney announced a task force to investigate the deaths, but for months they stayed mum. When asked about the cause, officials favored one response: “It’s multifactorial.” But some of those factors, Boracio said over coffee at a Koreatown shop in Los Angeles, were obvious.
“Well,” Boracio said, “there was the weather.” Like many places across the rapidly warming world, southern California’s winter was unusual. After seven years of drought, the region got soaked. A few weeks of rain accounted for 125 percent of the annual average—so much that the area known for wildfire evacuations had to vacate those same areas for storms. That was bad for racing, where extreme weather can have dramatic effects on dirt or grass tracks. In a pinch, surface experts can “seal” a track, packing it down so that water runs off, rather than make mud. But harder surfaces are dangerous for horses; it’s like running on concrete. The repeated impact causes microfractures, tiny bone breaks invisible to X-rays, and with each race, damage compounds. Anatomical oxymorons, horses are ferocious powerhouses, but eminently breakable—one ton of flesh on four toothpicks. Added stress can humble even the healthiest runner. Take Princess Lili B, a sound, 3-year-old filly, who became Santa Anita’s 22nd fatality when she fell in March, breaking both front ankles in one clean snap. At that point, 19 of the fatalities came from ankle injuries. “Frankly,” said Dr. Rick Arthur, Equine Medical Director at the U. C. Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and adviser to the California horse Racing Board,“to me, that’s firm confirmation that the track was untenably hard.”
Factor two, Boracio said, was simple: “Drugs.” Drugs are a lightning rod in the horse debate. Among activists, they are an obvious evil—legalized Lance Armstrong-ing. For insiders, it’s more subtle. Horse doping usually involves two types of drugs: performance-enhancing (cocaine, frog venom, steroids, and weirdly, Viagra) and therapeutic. The former are banned, if still used illicitly. A 2012 New York Times investigation found that American trainers had been caught 3,800 times for illegal horse doping since 2009; and just last fall, the Times uncovered a disqualifying substance in last year’s Triple Crown winner, Justify. But the therapeutic meds are slipperier. In nine out of 10 racing deaths, a wounded horse has a pre-existing injury at the spot of the fatal wound. Those injuries can be hard to catch, because a horse can’t explain what hurts. They have to show it. On certain painkillers, many of which are legal on non-race days, a horse may seem ready to run, even if they’re not. Every trainer knows this, Boracio said, and many use it to their advantage. “There’s an old saying in the business,” he added, “if your horse doesn’t have a problem, he’s not a runner.”
“There’s an old saying in the business—if your horse doesn’t have a problem, he’s not a runner.”
Santa Anita’s management had their own theories. In March, the park’s parent company, The Stronach Group, published a statement titled: “AN OPEN LETTER ABOUT THE FUTURE OF THOROUGHBRED RACING IN CALIFORNIA.” The letter announced sweeping reforms: a ban on the lung-bleeding medication, Lasix; a tighter protocol for painkillers; new pre-race exams; and random drug testing. Later, they restricted whips for softer crops, and fired a Racing Hall of Fame trainer, who lost four horses that season. Those efforts did seem to stymie the death toll. By June—with dryer weather and new rules—The Stronach Group announced a 58 percent decrease in racing fatalities and an 80 percent decrease during training.
But the results did not sit well with Boracio. “They’re trying to cover their ass,” he snorted. For him and over a dozen Santa Anita horsemen interviewed for this article, more insidious factors were at work—both in horse racing as a whole, and at the track. (“Bluntly,” Dr. Arthur affirmed, “we raced on some days we shouldn’t have raced, and we trained on days we shouldn’t have trained”). In August, Boracio quit training and sold off his stock. “My selfish eyes were opened,” he said. “I love my horses but I put the dollar over them.”
In late September, Santa Anita reopened for their fall season. Three horses died the first week; four more soon followed. In November, the park hosted the Breeders’ Cup, the multi-million dollar championship and finale of the North American racing season. When a horse named Mongolian Groom broke down before 118,000 onlookers and over 2 million others watching from home, the death toll hit 38.
The Decline of Racing
Over the summer, I went to the races at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, a track outside San Diego overlooking the Pacific. The experience of walking into Del Mar, whose slogans include “Where The Turf Meets the Surf” and “Cool as Ever,” feels like stumbling into Bill and Ted’s phone booth and warping back to 1947. The one-mile track, framed by a complex of English Tudor buildings, was an old Hollywood hotspot—Bing Crosby was a co-founder; Lucille Ball, Betty Grable, and Mickey Rooney were regulars. Del Mar has maintained its mid-century bourgeois appeal. The park can seat up to 44,000 fans and regularly does. The evening I came, tens of thousands streamed into the Tuscan grandstand, wearing whale-sized sun hats, rumpled sports jackets, or assorted frat apparel; sipping cocktails, wine or beer; pouring over unintelligible racecard shorthand; betting on horses with inane, fridge-magnet names (Shesaidshesperfect, So Much Happy, Nocherylikemychery, None of Your Biz, Unchain Her Heart, Soul Beam, and Baby Gronk).
If all tracks looked like Del Mar, the current crisis might not be so brutal. The park embodies the ideal of modern racing: lucrative, beautiful, well-attended, and—aside from the sucking chasm it opened in my wallet—relatively scandal-free. But Del Mar is an outlier. Sitting in its grandstand, you might not notice that the annual foal crop has halved since 1990, dropping from 40,333 new thoroughbreds to just 19,925 born last year; or that the number of annual races has fallen from 72,664 to 36,586 in the same period; or that, over those same years, on-track pari-mutuel handle (the big pot betters split) has withered from $2.944 billion dollars a year to just $999 million. From the VIP seats at Del Mar’s “Blue Moon Celebrity Grill,” in other words, you can’t see how horse racing has declined for four decades, or how the Santa Anita spotlight has made it more vulnerable than ever.
A few days after Del Mar, I got lunch with Alan Balch, executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, at Smitty’s Grill in Pasadena, an old-school eatery with multiple kinds of chopped salad. Balch, who worked in racetrack marketing for decades, has spotless white hair, thin Matrix sunglasses, and a taste for suits. He would dominate on a racing trivia team, often summoning obscure horse names, racetrack closure dates, and annual earnings in a grandfatherly baritone.
American racing, Balch said, once looked a lot like Del Mar. After the Great Depression and until the 1980s, racing reigned as the country’s top spectator sport. Santa Anita regularly beat Dodgers Stadium for daily attendance, attracting crowds of 70,000 or 80,000 people. Hollywood Park, a Los Angeles racetrack, brought in even more. Attendance was up, purses were huge, and new venues opened from Birmingham to Shakopee. “People came to Santa Anita for the spectacle, the horses, the beauty, the flowers, the architecture, the social experience, the food, the beverages, all those things,” Balch said. In 1985, when the track held the Santa Anita Handicap, they attracted an audience of 85,527, setting their all-time record—then, the largest non-Kentucky Derby crowd in history.
But in 1984, Californians approved Proposition 37, a ballot measure for a new revenue stream that would up state funding without raising taxes. It was the state’s first legal lottery. Not good! Horsemen hate to say it, but racing is a gambling game. “It’s gaming,” Balch sighed. “I mean it’s all game. Going to see the Dodgers is not gaming.” Racing doesn’t have fans the way other sports do. There are no franchises, no teams, no leagues. The sport has infrastructure like pre-railroad timekeeping: every state makes different laws; every track follows different seasons, rules, and betting protocols. It is completely decentralized. Occasionally a Secretariat or a Seabiscuit will capture national attention, but mostly, the appeal lies in two minutes of action and the dangling promise of a payout. When California legalized the lottery, it took a bite out of the betting population.
At that point, only a few states had lotteries. But within a few years, several others—many of them racing hubs like Florida and Kentucky—followed suit. The sport took another hit when Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, requiring states to negotiate with tribes who wanted to open casinos. That ushered in another gambling industry, which would eat a bigger chunk of the racing audience. “Now you have all these things vying for the gaming dollar,” Balch said. Add in the advent of simulcasting and off-track betting, which allowed fans to wager from local parlors, and the late 80s sounded a death knell for racetrack attendance.
There was also another, less obvious pressure on the industry. When Ronald Reagan passed the Tax Reform Act of 1986, the second of his two major tax cuts, it wasn’t exactly perceived as a burden on the rich. But the law had massive effects on horse owners, who are, as a general rule, oil-money wealthy, or old-money wealthy, or at least in the ballpark of the yacht-owning, middlingly rich variety. Before the tax cut, investing in horses was a tax haven, allowing high-income earners to write off their losses. (Of all the reasons to buy a racehorse, a former sales executive told the Los Angeles Times in 1990, “Tax benefits were No. 1”). Reagan’s bill killed that loophole. Some owners still use thoroughbreds as tax shelters, but the new law burst the speculative bubble of the market. Where yearlings had once sold for millions, by 1990, they averaged $352,009. “The 1986 Tax Reform Act,” one source told the Times, “was devastating to horse racing in this country.”
The combo of the lottery, gaming, simulcasting, and tax changes took a toll. Tracks dropped like flies or, uh, horses. Alabama’s Birmingham Race Course filed for bankruptcy in ‘88, Washington’s Longacres closed in ‘92, Illinois’ Quads City Downs died in ‘93, Nebraska’s Ak Sar Ben quaked in ‘95, and New Mexico’s Downs at Santa Fe kicked it in ‘96. The carnage lasted well into the new millennium: 36 American tracks have closed since 2000, including Hollywood Park, once the capital of California racing, which Los Angeles razed in 2013 to make way for a massive planned community and a $4.9 billion NFL stadium. At the height of its heyday, California had ten premiere race tracks. Now, there are four.
These days, the better snapshot of the sport lies just 80 miles up the coast from Del Mar at Los Alamitos—a rundown racetrack with the feel of an early-morning casino. Los Al, as horsemen call it, is on its last legs. The city has already banned future racing once it closes; developers are circling like vultures. When I was there, the seats were mostly empty (as was its high-end clubhouse, the “Vessels Club,” looking every inch its name). A few dozen attendees flicked their eyes between track and TV screen, gripping racecards like Bibles, sitting in tense silence until the odd explosive moment. That has its own pleasures; at one moment, the room reverbed with shrieks and shared anger, when a longshot winner got disqualified for whipping another horse. But taken together, the two tracks offer a grim treatise on the state of racing: Los Al as the sport stands now; Del Mar as it once was.
Beating a Dead Horse
If horse racing has been in hot water for decades, the particular chaos consuming Santa Anita dates back to 1998, when a squat Canadian named Frank Stronach, founder of the billion-dollar auto parts business Magna International, bought the racetrack for $126 million. It was a harebrained idea—the horse economy was in freefall. But Frank, whose biographer Wayne Lilley described as “a genius and a buffoon wrapped together,” had a thing for flamboyant ventures. By that point, he had already tried to run for Parliament; open a restaurant franchise named for his daughter, Belinda; and build an Austrian theme park featuring a 60-story globe, a giant statue of the Greek god Atlas involving—if the proportions worked out as planned—a seven-foot phallus, and an unfortunately Mengelish mantra: “On a perfect little planet, a race of beautiful people has built a utopia.” None of those worked out. But Santa Anita did.
Frank poured money into Santa Anita, shelling out some $40 million alone to open a four-star restaurant by the track. Over the next two decades, Frank’s company spent more than $870 million on racetracks, simulcasting rights, and two massive statues of Pegasus fighting with a fire-breathing dragon for Gulfstream Park in South Florida (price tag: $55 million). Not long into the millenium, Frank became the largest owner and operator of thoroughbred tracks in North America.
The ornery billionaire—who had, at various points, commissioned and paid in full three different writers to author his biography—obsessed over his legacy. But between 2010 and 2011, Frank and his family surprised the Canadian business world, relinquishing their auto parts empire in exchange for the racing business. They founded The Stronach Group and named Belinda its president, while Frank retired to his expensive side obsessions. (Among them: a 90,000-acre cattle farm in Florida; a self-funded right-wing populist party in Austria called “Team Stronach;” and a rambling 29-chapter manifesto titled “The Question of All Questions: Where Are We Going and Where Did We Come From?” which mused about the roots of good (free enterprise) and evil (taxes), and proposed policies like a $500 incentive for voluntary sterilization to combat overpopulation.)
The costs (and Frank’s clashes with the Austrian tax office) racked up. Belinda, an athletic blonde with cheaper hobbies than her father, tried to curb his spending. But after years of clashing, their rapport soured. In October of 2018, 85-year-old Frank and his wife, Elfriede, fired the first shots in what became a Succession-like battle over ownership. They filed a $520 million lawsuit against their daughter, accusing her in court documents of “a series of covert and unlawful actions” that destroyed their racing business. Belinda’s brother, Andrew, filed a second suit against her, in support of their parents. Belinda responded with a counterclaim, arguing Frank had blown $680 million on “passion projects,” like the Pegasus statue and a pumpkin seed oil enterprise. By 2019, more family members had entered the fray: Andrew’s long-separated wife filed for a complex financial divorce, and their 18-year-old daughter drew up another case against Belinda. When horses started dying at Santa Anita, the billionaire business dynasty was waging four simultaneous legal battles—none with a truce in sight.
But for all their fighting, Belinda had hewn to her father’s imperative to run their racetracks like a business. In 2018, she explained to the Los Angeles Times how she gauged success in racing. “First of all, it would be profitability,” she said. “At the end of the day we are a business. We’ll be measured by the profits we make.” In the months before the breakdowns, Santa Anita made several polarizing business moves. They reshuffled much of their staff: firing the racing secretary, announcer, and, most controversially, the famous track superintendent Dennis Moore, just weeks before the season started (the track denies firing Moore; his contract was “not renewed”).
They also announced their stall applications had some new fine print: trainers would have to race each horse a set minimum of days, or pay a fine for every day they didn’t. Outcry was immediate. “Everyone was saying, Oh my God, I’ve got to run so much or I’ll pay a fine,” Boracio said. The state trainer’s association sent a concerned letter; the track never responded. The fine never materialized, but the issue remained unsettled. And the message was clear. “They were threatening people to run,” one owner said. “They were real assholes.”
That winter, when trainers tried to “scratch,” or pull their horse from a race, several said they met resistance. A woman named Shelbe Ruis took to Twitter to express her anger. “I was harassed from the new racing secretary for scratching my horse for unsafe conditions,” Ruis wrote in a since-deleted tweet (Ruis did not respond to requests for comment). “They don’t care about horse safety at Santa Anita.” Another trainer, Vladimir Cerin, recalled a day when he scratched four horses due to rain: “I got a call from a racing official who said: You can’t do this, you can’t scratch all four horses. I said: Yeah, I can. It’s not safe. He said: Well, why did you enter? I said: It wasn’t raining when I entered.” Asked if he had similar stories, trainer Bob Bean sighed: “Yes, yes, yes, and more yes.” Later, an article in Trainer Magazine summed up the park’s warnings: “Run more often or your stalls are at risk.” It ran under the headline: “A Cluster F***ailure!”
“At the end of the day we are a business. We’ll be measured by the profits we make.”
“The management there bears a huge, huge responsibility,” said one trainer, who has worked at Santa Anita for two years. “Not a hundred percent, but close.” More than a dozen track affiliates talked to me on the condition of anonymity, several claiming they would “lose their stalls” if they spoke critically. “Management took zero responsibility for what happened,” said another, who ranks among the top paid trainers nation-wide. An owner who left the industry after last season, put it more bluntly: “The problem? One hundred percent track maintenance.”
Asked about claims of mismanagement, a spokesperson for The Stronach Group said they would “let the Los Angeles District Attorney’s report speak for itself.” He was referring to the conclusions of the task force investigation on the fatalities, released in December after nearly a year of autopsies, examinations, and more than 100 interviews. It was just 17 pages long; the Los Angeles Times called it “graph- and chart-heavy.” The task force found no evidence of misconduct—either through medication, track conditions, running injured horses, or forcing trainers to race—concluding that, while “Santa Anita Park’s racing office encourages participation in racing,” it does not “exert undue pressure on trainers” to race their horses.
That raised some eyebrows. “This runs counter to reports in several media outlets,” racing reporter John Cherwa wrote in the Times, “quoting unidentified trainers who said they were pressured to run horses to fill fields early in the year.” Nine days later, Santa Anita opened for its current season. By New Year’s Day, two horses had died. Seven more have followed so far.
“Everyone was saying, ‘Oh my god, I’ve got to run so much or I’ll pay a fine.’”
The Business of Racing
In September, I joined a smattering of horsemen in a conference room at Los Alamitos for the general meeting of the California Horse Racing Board. The room was packed with activists. Squat men in bootcut jeans passed out flyers captioned: “Save Horse Racing,” and “Horses = Jobs.” Elsewhere, a cohort of older women held laser-printed posters of carcasses. One read: “They kill horses, don’t they?”
By the front, one woman named Heather Wilson, a nurse anesthetist and animal rights activist, sat by a massive pile of signs. Everything about Wilson is straight, direct, blunt: the way she talks, the way she walks, the way she clips her hair back in two even barrettes. Like many activists, Wilson got involved right after the Santa Anita story broke. Footage from one of the first protests shows the nurse storming into the park with a megaphone and body camera, pushing past security guards, and getting put in a chokehold (Wilson spent six hours in jail; she sued for wrongful imprisonment; they settled out of court for an undisclosed sum). “This industry is driven by profit,” she said in a Long Island accent. “Horses are just running piggy banks to these guys.”
“Horses are just running piggy banks to these guys.”
It’s easy to critique almost any American industry as profit driven. But the influence of money in racing is unique. Almost everyone involved has a financial stake: owners, trainers, jockeys, simulcasters—even the audience is there to profit. Thoroughbreds are thousand, even million-dollar investments, often owned by several stakeholders, who might change dozens of times over the horse’s career, as investors buy in and sell out, eyeing their returns. (There’s an entire class of race, called a “claiming” race, devoted to this practice, where every horse is up for sale). The invisible hand reaches so far, some analysts claim, it has changed the literal anatomy of the horse. Unlike earlier years, when the holy grail of breeding was an animal who raced well into their eighth or ninth year, the biggest prizes now come from races for 2- or 3-year-olds, like the Kentucky Derby. As a result, breeders often select for traits of speed rather than endurance. The current horse stock, Balch told me, has a “lighter bone, [a] bone of less substance.”
The fallout is that, on some level, everyone wants a horse to race. There’s no money in not racing. Most horsemen pamper their horses, but they’re constantly weighing risk and reward. Bad weather could be dangerous, but if others drop out, the odds of winning rise. A wounded horse might break down, but with a high enough purse, possible earnings out-value potential loss. Racetracks, more so than anyone, lose revenue if they cancel a race. They also lose revenue if trainers pull their horse from a race, which, incidentally, is often against the rules. Conflicted financial interests extend well beyond southern California—they undergird the whole sport. “This is a collision,” Balch said, “between market economics and what’s good for the horse.”
“People keep asking: Why are the horses breaking down? Why are there so many deaths?” said Patrick Battuello, a former journalist and the founder of Horseracing Wrongs, the watchdog nonprofit Wilson works with, whose single mission is to end racing forever. “But this is not an anomaly. This is not a spike or a spate. This is business as usual.” To place blame on the Stronachs and Santa Anita, Battuello said, belies a bigger point about the dead horse situation and racing as a whole: “Death at the track is, always has been, and always will be an inevitable part of racing.” To industry insiders, mystery horse deaths are not mysterious. They’re an everyday occurrence. Catastrophic breakdowns are unavoidable in racing—a cost of doing business.“Where you have livestock,” one trainer told the New Zealand Herald in 2016, “you’ve got dead stock.”
“Death at the track is, always has been, and always will be an inevitable part of racing.”
In the horse world, catastrophic injuries are so unremarkable that no one thought to count them until 2008, when a filly named Eight Belles broke down on live television during the Kentucky Derby. Even then, authorities blamed business: “Greed,” Congressman Ed Whitfield said in a testimony about the incident, “has trumped the health of the horse, the safety of the jockey, the strength of the breed, and the integrity of the sport.” In the aftermath of that scandal, the Jockey Club launched the Equine Injury Database, which tallies fatal injuries each year. By their count, between 500 and 800 horses have died at American racetracks each year since 2009. But the real numbers are likely much higher. Those statistics only consider deaths that occurred as a direct result of a race. No training or non-racing deaths; no injuries that took over 72 hours to turn fatal. (Although Santa Anita racked up 38 catastrophic breakdowns last year, for example, the official count is 18). Battuello’s non-profit, which has filed regular FOIA requests with every state commission for six years, has confirmed an annual average of at least 1,000, but claims gaps in data indicate the real number hovers well over 2,000.
For months, everyone had been asking about Santa Anita. And the Santa Anita deaths were odd: 16 horses died by February 10—last year, the toll didn’t get there until mid-March. But they were odd because they occurred so quickly, not because they happened. All told, the season was not even the track’s deadliest (that would be 2011-2012, when the toll hit 71). It wasn’t even deadlier than last year (41). By Battuello’s count, the track has averaged 50 dead horses annually since 2007. And after Santa Anita’s spring meet ended, fatalities merely continued elsewhere—first at Del Mar where, on the second day of their season, two horses collided so violently they broke their necks; then with four breakdowns at Los Alamitos; and later at Belmont Park, where eight horses were euthanized within two weeks. At tracks across California, Battuello has tallied more than 5,000 dead horses since 1998. Since New York began disclosing deaths in 2009, the state has averaged 137 dead horses a year. “What’s happening at Santa Anita right now,” PETA wrote in a statement last June, “is a microcosm of racing nationally.” The real question was never why horses were dying—it was what would happen if people knew they always had been.
An End to Ass-Kicking
Near the end of the Round Table Conference on Matters Pertaining to Racing, a cheerful, perfectly bald man named William M. Lear Jr. took the stage. Lear, a Kentucky lawyer and vice-chair of the Jockey Club, opened with an anecdote from his firm. In the story, there were two attorneys—one old and wise, the other young and green. At trial, the opposing counsel was grilling one of their witnesses, and the guy was coming apart at the seams. The older lawyer scrawled his partner a note. It read: In case you’ve never had your ass kicked, pay close attention. “I tell you that story, I think, for an obvious reason,” Lear told the crowd. “And that is that we have watched as the American thoroughbred industry has been kicked in the same place, in the same way—kicked and kicked again over the last eight months. And yet there are still some folks within our industry that do not appear to be paying close attention.”
In particular, Lear wanted people to pay attention to a piece of legislation called the Horse Racing Integrity Act. The bill, brought in the U.S. House of Representatives by Paul Tonko and Andy Barr, would establish an independent nonprofit called the Horseracing Anti-Doping and Medication Control Authority, to create uniform drug laws across all states. It’s an old proposal—Tonko and Barr have pushed the bill several times without success. But it gained traction last spring, garnering 242 co-sponsors in the House; a parallel bill in the Senate, introduced by Kirsten Gillibrand and Martha McSally; and a petition from the Coalition from Horse Racing Integrity, with more than 53,000 signatures. The House version moved to sub-committee last fall. The Senate version long seemed dead in the water: Churchill Downs, a powerful track and once vigorous opponent of the Horse Racing Integrity Act, is a constituent of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. But support is coalescing: the track endorsed last week.
For Lear and its supporters, the Horse Racing Integrity Act represents a salve for the sport’s gaping wounds. It would temper the ass-kicking in public perception. It would create a unified voice in a game overrun with the competing shrieks of state and local regulation. Best, it would symbolize commitment to industry-wide change, at a moment when stasis might mean extinction.
But of all the factors involved in Santa Anita’s bad season—extreme weather, medication, money—the Horse Racing Integrity Act targets only one: drugs, some of which, like Lasix, have no proven impact on breakdowns. Eric Hamelback, the CEO of racing’s most powerful trade organization, called the ban “completely wrong-headed.” Activists like Wilson see it as a superficial fix to put the public at ease, while the sport carries on killing horses. Even the bill’s most vigorous supporters agree: it is a bandaid, not a cure. “I don’t think it gets to the heart of the safety issue,” Dr. Arthur said. “We need a cultural change in horse racing where safety of the horse has to be everyone’s primary concern even over winning races. That’s a big change.”
What could that change look like? There is some precedent for the Santa Anita scandal. Between November of 2011 and March of 2012, 30 horses were euthanized at Aqueduct Race Track in Ozone Park, New York (official race-only count: 21). As with Santa Anita, the mortality glut led state officials to call for an investigation. Governor Andrew Cuomo put together a task force to look into the deaths and prepare a report on what the team called “The Fatally Injured Group.” What they found bears a striking resemblance to Santa Anita: bad weather, overmedication, and an influx of cash that led to irresponsible racing. The task force outlined a list of recommendations, and the track implemented some of the most aggressive reforms the area had ever seen. Those seemed to work for a while. But within a few years, racing relapsed. In 2015, “The Big A,” as it’s called, saw another spike in deaths, prompting a series of “emergency measures” to protect at-risk runners.
Santa Anita, and horse racing broadly speaking, can’t afford another Aqueduct. The sport needs bold change—immediate, wide-reaching, and with staying power—or it might face legislation of another kind. In 2018, voters in Florida passed Amendment 13, a proposition to eliminate greyhound racing by 2021. The state was home to 11 of only 17 remaining dog tracks in the country. South Florida’s last one closed last April. Horse racing is less precarious, but only slightly, especially in California. A Quinnipiac poll found that just 19 percent of California voters have a favorable view of the sport, with 20 percent unfavorable and 59 percent undecided. The war over horse racing’s right to exist is already playing out in advertising. Santa Anita has placed ads across the internet––on Instagram, Facebook, in the L.A. Times newsletter. Meanwhile, bus stop benches across Los Angeles have been plastered with dead horse pictures, courtesy of Horseracing Wrongs.
At the round table that morning, Lear closed his remarks with a plea. He reminded the crowd of a quote, often misattributed to Albert Einstein. It’s the one about insanity—doing the same thing over and over and expecting new results. “A Kentucky county judge that I once talked to said essentially the same thing in more down-to-earth, but equally eloquent terms,” Lear recalled. “He said to me: If we keep doing what we’re doing, we’ll get what we got.”
Back in April, when the Santa Anita story was taking off in earnest, PETA circulated a video. The 26-second clip, captured on a cellphone, opens on the track in the middle of a race, zooming from the stands to the rail to the grassy inner ring. In the foreground, a young boy and girl lean against the fence, using the lattice as a ladder. Off camera, a caller mutters horse names too fast to hear. Then, just as six runners round the far turn into the homestretch, a white horse collapses, taking a brown filly with him. The crowd erupts in howls. The girl at the fence peers back at the stands, confused, not sure what she’s seeing.
When the white horse gets up, he’s limping. His gait, erratic and jumpy, looks like a technical error, some snag in the tape. But the problem soon becomes obvious. The horse has snapped his front right foot. It’s nearly severed from his leg, pointing up at an unnatural angle, like a salad tong or safety pin.
News stations and activists seized on the footage, in part because it boiled the arguments down to one disturbing gif. A good race can be gorgeous: the bright-colored silks, the caller’s monotone patter, the seven, eight, or nine gargantuan creatures pushing the limit of physical ability. But when a sport lives at that limit—between perfect exertion and total collapse—the spectacle easily turns ugly. “A million things have to go right to win a race,” trainer Barclay Tagg likes to say. “Only one thing has to go wrong to lose it.” Those kids at the fence, the crowd, everyone watching from TVs, phones, and screens, they all saw how hideous that one thing could be.
“A million things have to go right to win a race. Only one thing has to go wrong to lose it.”
No one wants to watch a horse fall, not even fans. “It’s not like hockey,” Dr. Arthur told me. “Attendance dips when horses break down.” It’s unnerving. No name has better suited its subject: catastrophic breakdown. Horses seem both too big and too graceful to fail. They’re too close to humanity, tied to our earliest and most basic ideas of ourselves. Horse stories and human stories have always been linked: in our cave paintings, our warfare, our cowboys, our idioms, our graphic T-shirts marketed to tweens. The first motion picture was a study in equine movement. Television has spent decades imagining if steeds could talk. Even the most basic myth of civilization’s undoing is occasioned, not by angels or demons, but by four horses and the men who ride them.
Just why the Santa Anita news stuck is a mystery, for horsemen. Less so for everyone else. Outsiders can see what those kids saw; they can sense that these deaths—born out of drug abuse, climate change, capitalism—ring familiar. Even now, with humans and horses more distant than they have ever been, their stories still connect. A while back, I was leaving Santa Anita after a meeting with Dr. Arthur. He walked me out of his office, through the stables and trailers, to the front gate, talking about the appeal in racing. As he toggled the latch, Dr. Arthur paused. “The relationship between humans and horses is really the story of civilization,” he said, looking out from behind the fence. “Isn’t it?” He closed the gate and walked back to the barn.