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Horse Racing's Uncomfortable Truth: Horses Die

Interest in horse racing has already dropped dramatically since the early 1960s, when it could credibly claim to be America's most popular spectator sport

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    Horse Racing's Uncomfortable Truth: Horses Die
    Charlie Riedel/AP (File)
    FILE - Kentucky Derby entrant Improbable is held during his bath after a workout at Churchill Downs, May 1, 2019, in Louisville, Ky.

    Thoroughbreds provide many reasons to marvel.

    The fastest can top 40 mph. Their speed-producing features — extraordinary concentration of muscle, body and lungs forming a natural bellows, oversized hearts circulating ten gallons of blood — inspire comparison to locomotives.

    Yet the 1,100-pound animals, taking 20-foot-plus strides, gallop on ankles which have been likened to glass.

    Suddenly, the entire sport of thoroughbred racing stands on fragile legs.

    The crisis reared up at famed Santa Anita Park in California, where 23 horses broke down and had to be killed during a recent 14-week period.

    It put a national spotlight on a hard reality the public normally doesn't think about: Horses commonly break down during racing or training and are put to death.

    The goal is to end the suffering, but a central Pa. horse vet argues it happens too often.

    In Pennsylvania, 87 horses died at the state's three thoroughbred racing venues last year, a rate of about 1.5 a week.

    Forty-five of the deaths were at Penn National near Harrisburg; 34 at Parx near Philadelphia and eight at Presque Isle Downs in Erie. The figures, from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, include horses which died of racing and training injuries or other causes while at the track.

    The good news is those numbers are far lower than they were less than less than a decade ago, when 187 horses died in one year at Pennsylvania thoroughbred tracks. While the decline is partly the result of fewer races, the death rate also has dropped.

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    But the Santa Anita spike is well outside the norm, and came at a particularly bad time — the lead-up to the Kentucky Derby. That's the horse racing equivalent of the Final Four, something the industry depends upon to attract casual fans and help keep the sport alive.

    The Santa Anita deaths have shocked the track's owners and people everywhere with a stake in the sport. They give new ammunition to activists who believe horse racing is cruel and should be outlawed.

    As breakdowns mounted, Santa Anita shut down twice as a national expert probed and studied the dirt surface. Nothing seemed wrong. Deaths continued, although not since early April. The cause or causes remain a mystery.

    But many say the root causes have long been obvious and rampant across horse racing: drugs to make horses run faster and mask injuries. Whipping them down the stretch. Decades of breeding that have yielded maximum muscle and power, but relatively light bones. A decline in thoroughbred births, forcing horses to race more often.

    Now powerful voices, including the owners of Santa Anita, are backing major change.

    "We are taking a step forward and saying, quite emphatically, that the current system is broken," said Belinda Stronach of the The Stronach Group, which also owns Pimlico in Baltimore.

    The influential Jockey Club, a 125-year-old organization that works to improve racing and thoroughbred breeding, issued a damning white paper warning the sport must rid itself of drugs or face a public and political backlash that could kill it.

    "This isn't about a single track — horse fatalities are a nationwide problem, one that has shocked fans, the industry, the regulators, and the general public," the Jockey Club wrote.

    Unlike the NFL or NBA, thoroughbred racing has no overall governing body. It's regulated independently by each of the 38 states where the sport is legal. In Pennsylvania it's governed by a racing commission within the agriculture department.

    That's a problem, according to the Jockey Club. It means, the organization says, "we lag behind cheaters and abusers and by the time we have caught up they move on to the next designer substance."

    Unlike most sports, horse racing hasn't changed much from its primitive days. Now it must change, say some major players, or face extinction. In Pennsylvania, the latter would mean a loss of 7,400 direct jobs and thousands of other related jobs, according to the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Association.

    Interest in horse racing has already dropped dramatically since the early 1960s, when it could credibly claim to be America's most popular spectator sport. Today, it ranks among sports such as men's tennis and women's professional basketball.

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    The decline is attributed to various forces, including widespread legalization of casinos, online gambling and greater concern for well-being of animals. There are also fewer tracks, sometimes because the land became more valuable for other uses.

    Ray Paulick, who has written about horse racing for 40 years, says "I've never seen the sport in such peril as it is today."

    Pennsylvania says it tightened the rules
    A few years ago, Pennsylvania faced its own horse racing crisis, centered at Penn National in Grantville. It involved FBI and local investigations and witnesses who said rampant cheating stretched back decades. Much of it involved illegal drugging of horses.

    "Almost everybody did," trainer Stephanie Beattie testified in federal court in 2017. She was Penn National's top trainer in 2009, with 222 wins and $3.4 million in earnings. "Ninety-five to 98%. It was a known practice. We wanted to win and they weren't testing for those drugs at that time."

    Penn National, while pointing out most of the cheating was done by people it didn't employ or control, promised to do everything it could to stop it.

    Pennsylvania also vowed to clean up the sport.

    In 2016, legislators passed a law intended to give the Pennsylvania Racing Commission greater ability to catch and punish people who illegally drug horses or otherwise cheat.

    So how is Pennsylvania doing?
    Kate Papp is a Dauphin County-based horse veterinarian and a national voice on safe treatment of horses. She and her husband, a trainer, race thoroughbreds at Penn National. She cares for their horses and some owned by others at Penn National.

    Not long ago, Papp says, she considered Pennsylvania the worst in the nation at protecting horses and catching what she calls "juice trainers" who illegally drug horses.

    With its new regulations, it has "improved about 25 percent," she said.

    "I don't think we're doing well at all," she says. "We're not doing a good enough job of weeding out the horses that shouldn't be allowed to race."

    Papp expresses sympathy for the state racing commission, saying it faces a daunting task in catching cheaters. Pennsylvania has a state-of-the-art testing lab based at the University of Pennsylvania. It has new authority to conduct off-site, "out of competition testing." Still, cheaters use "designer drugs" to beat the system, Papp says.

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    At her farm a few miles from Penn National, she reaches into a tote bag and pulls out stacks of race horse death reports obtained from the racing commission through right-to-know requests. She points to columns showing test results for dozens of drugs. But cheaters have access to far more drugs than the commission can test for at any given time, she said.

    Papp further believes cheaters receive tips about what the lab will test for, enabling them to beat the tests. Her husband, trainer Monti N. Sims, says cheating trainers also "stack" legal drugs to get some of the effects of illegal drugs.

    To truly clean up the sport, Papp says, Pennsylvania needs stiffer penalties for cheaters, with fines and suspensions extending to owners and horses. "You have to hurt their livelihoods," she says.

    As it stands, much of the evidence against cheaters amounts to what is seen and heard by fellow trainers and veterinarians, according to Papp. They are reluctant to testify. To overcome that, she says, cameras must be installed.

    Another serious problem in Pennsylvania, according to Papp and Sims, stems from the approximately $240 million per year of casino money that flows into horse racing to bolster the industry. Much of the money has gone toward larger purses for claiming races — low level races where each horse is for sale for a "claim price," sometimes well under $10,000.

    When available purses are substantially higher than claim prices, critics say it creates an incentive for uncaring owners to buy cheap, possibly ailing horses, and run them hard for quick profit. The solution, Sims believes, is a rule that limits the gap between the claims price and the available purse.

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    Paulick is the publisher of The Paulick Report, which is based in Kentucky and has a national scope and a mission of "shining light" on the industry. Asked how Pennsylvania is doing, he says: "It's hard to really gauge, because the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission is not very responsive to media inquiries. It's hard to know what their policies are and what policies they have changed."

    Racing toward transparency?
    Concern over transparency isn't new to the racing commission, which was revamped in 2016 to enable it to better police the sport. Around that time, lawmakers sanctioned a report which took a top-to-bottom look at Pennsylvania's horse racing industry. The report concluded public reporting of penalties for doping and mistreatment of horses "could strengthen the public's trust in the industry's ability to care for these animals."

    In 2016, Pennsylvania doubled the maximum fine to $10,000.

    "We believe the increased fines, restructured commission staff, and increased checks and balances in our administrative and lab processes have been an effective deterrent for those who seek to skirt the law," commission spokeswoman Shannon Powers said.

    The racing commission drug tests the winner and a randomly selected finisher for each race. It also tests each horse that has a fatal breakdown or otherwise dies at Pennsylvania tracks.

    The 2016 reforms further gave the commission authority to conduct unannounced "out-of-competition" tests at off-track locations. In 2017, the commission conducted 374 out-of-competition tests but found no violations, according to Powers. In 2018, it conducted 418 tests, with two violations.

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    Powers says the commission is still staffing up for its expanded enforcement role. A new search feature will give the public more information regarding drug-related and other penalties. But due to a staff shortage, the feature isn't up to date, according to Powers.

    "Improvements are underway which will make information about penalties much more readily available," she says.

    Central Pa. tracks address deaths
    Penn National near Harrisburg is one of the only tracks in the United States that races year-round. That means horses are kept there, and trained there, year-round, creating maximum opportunities for horses to break down.

    Christopher McErlean, Penn National's vice president of racing, says the track's 2018 fatality rate of 1.84 deaths per 1,000 starts reflects many things being done well. It's better than the national rate of 1.86 deaths per 1,000 starts on dirt tracks. And with three racing-related deaths as of April 27 of this year, Penn National is on pace for its safest year -- knock on wood -- since 2001, he says.

    "I think we have a good program in place. We are constantly trying to improve, learn," he says.

    Penn National can't claim all the credit. As McErlean explains, horses at Penn National are largely under the control of others: owners, trainers, veterinarians. Penn National provides the "stage." Its main responsibility is to provide a safe track surface.

    Vince Caligiuri/Getty Images

    However, Penn National, which owns five thoroughbred tracks, was one of the first to voluntarily report deaths to the Jockey Club, according to McErlean. It also was a pioneer in conducting in-house reviews of horse deaths. In a program now considered a "best practice" in the industry, Penn National's director of racing and track veterinarian conducts mandatory reviews involving the trainer of each horse that dies, he says.

    McErlean says "the vast, vast, vast" majority of horse-racing professionals at Penn National are competent and well-intentioned. Still, while they are licensed, some trainers aren't as skilled as others. A lesser-skilled trainer or other horse professional can jeopardize the health of a horse, increasing the risk of a death. The death, however, tends to get blamed on the track.

    Nor can Penn National necessarily ban someone whose practices it disagrees with. That was highlighted in its failed effort to eject Eduardo Rojas. His wife, Murray Rojas, is a former top trainer at Penn National who was convicted of illegally drugging horses. She transferred horses to her husband.

    Penn National saw it as continuation of a troubled operation and permanently evicted Eduardo Rojas. He appealed to the state racing commission, which reduced it to three years. Rojas appealed to Commonwealth Court, which ruled his rights were violated.

    "Our race tracks and company have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees defending our positions on not allowing unscrupulous individuals to race at our facilities, but frustratingly, we have not always been successful in that regard," McErlean says.

    He also points out testing for drugs and punishments for violators are the responsibility of the racing commission and its counterparts in other states. As it stands, Penn National would welcome greater "uniformity" regarding allowed drugs, testing and penalties, including "more extensive and aggressive out-of-competition testing," McErlean said.

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    Still, Penn National has declined to support a bill before Congress, the Horseracing Integrity Act, that would create a private, independent organization to set and enforce national drug standards, similar to the Olympic anti-doping program.

    Organizations that include the Jockey Club and the Santa Anita owners have come out in support of the bill, saying it's needed to save the sport.

    Penn National, however, has concerns about the financial sustainability of the organization and about federal involvement, McErlean says.

    Marty Irby, the executive director of Animal Wellness Action, argues the bill could correct many of the ills that caused the scandal at Penn National.

    He says Penn National is among the "few major tracks" which haven't backed the bill. Penn National's silence, Irby says, "has had a chilling effect on Pennsylvania lawmakers signing on to this important pro-animal, pro-horse racing legislation."

    Fewer deaths, less racing
    Thoroughbred racing, in terms of fatal breakdowns, has become safer over the past decade.

    In the United States, there were 493 fatal breakdowns in 2018, according to the Jockey Club. Those figures take into account only deaths resulting from a race, not those related to training.

    In tracking safety, the Jockey Club calculates the number of fatal breakdowns per 1,000 racing starts. In 2018, there were 1.68 fatal breakdowns per 1,000 starts in the United States. That's down from 790 deaths in 2009, a rate of 2 fatal breakdowns per 1,000 starts.

    In Pennsylvania, 38 of the 87 fatal breakdowns last year involved races, which equates to 1.40 deaths per 1,000 starts - better than the national average. The rates were 1.84 at Penn National, 1.49 at Parx and 0.51 at Presque Isle.

    Presque Isle, however, can't be directly compared to the other two tracks. It has a synthetic surface, which is considered safer than the more common dirt and turf tracks. Presque Isle also has considerably fewer races than Penn National and Parx. Still, its fatality rate is well under the national average for synthetic tracks of 1.23 per thousand starts.

    A decade or so ago, there was a push toward synthetic tracks. Many tracks switched. But some eventually concluded they are prone to problems such as chemicals leaching into the soil below and causing instability, and maintenance problems in certain climates. Some tracks switched back, and they are no longer widely considered a key to preventing breakdowns.

    At critical moment, a drug divides
    Much of the cheating involves "race day drugs" given to horses to enable an injured horse to race or otherwise aid performance. In general, horses can't be given drugs within 24 hours of a race.

    But there is a controversial exception: Lasix.

    Lasix is a diuretic which causes fluid loss. It's used to prevent lung bleeding that thoroughbreds often experience while sprinting.

    Horse trainers and veterinarians are strongly in favor of Lasix. They argue that, in preventing the bleeding and resulting damage, it's good for horses.

    However, by making horses lighter, Lasix enables them to run faster. Some also believe that, by diluting the urine, it makes it harder to detect illegal levels of other drugs.

    As the Santa Anita death toll mounted, the owner announced it was backing an array of reforms, including a ban on Lasix. The Jockey Club also argued vigorously for a ban, noting race-day Lasix is rarely used outside the United States, where rates of catastrophic breakdowns are lower.

    Organizations representing trainers, veterinarians and owners are objecting. It threatens to divide the industry on a subject many see as essential to erasing a public perception of a drug-riddled sport.

    Two weeks ago, a national coalition of tracks and associations approved a ban on Lasix. Supporters include Churchill Downs, which hosts the Kentucky Derby. The ban will be phased in, beginning in 2020, when two-year-olds will race without Lasix. By the 2021, the three-year-olds in the Kentucky Derby and the other Triple Crown races will run without Lasix.

    But it remains to be seen if the Lasix ban will filter down to lower level tracks, including Pennsylvania's three thoroughbred venues. The coalition behind the ban consists of tracks which hold races involving the top horses. Such races comprise only a tiny fraction of races held in Pennsylvania, so the ban wouldn't automatically apply to them.

    A Lasix ban in Pennsylvania would require acceptance from assorted stakeholders.

    The Pennsylvania Equine Coalition, representing owners, trainers and breeders, doesn't believe it's warranted.

    "No correlation has been shown between the use of Lasix and the breakdowns at Santa Anita, so a ban in Pennsylvania based on the pretense of safety - a view not shared at this point by veterinary groups - would appear premature. We believe that policies related to the administration of Lasix should be based on what credible medical experts and national veterinary organizations say is best for the health of the horse," spokesman Pete Peterson says.

    Supporters of the ban warn that the average American associates horse racing with drugs and horse deaths. Unless the sport goes drug-free, including Lasix, public opinion will continue to swing against it, they contend.

    "It just seems to me that if a horse requires a drug to race, you have to wonder should that horse be racing," says Paulick, the veteran racing writer. "It's disappointing to me that the rest of the world can do something we can't do, and that is to race completely drug-free."

    Proof it can be done
    Papp's husband, Monti N. Sims, always uses his middle initial or middle name, Neal. It distinguishes him from his father and grandfather, each named Monti and each a horse trainer.

    On recent day, power lines buzz above their farm in the countryside between Harrisburg and Penn National, where he spends part of every day training horses. Now, he hauls feed and otherwise tends their barn and stables. He works amid a menagerie of animals, most of them rescued from abuse or neglect: Tied up pit bulls. A horned steer Papp bought as a calf, on impulse, while shopping for vegetables. A goat with a paralyzed face that causes its tongue to hang out. Another goat which Sims steers into a pen, saying it "can be a handful."

    About a dozen thoroughbreds loll in the pasture, most of them former racers being readied for a second life. An older horse ambles up to Papp. The horse was given to her as a two-year-old. He made noise during heavy breathing, indicating an obstruction. Papp spent thousands on surgery, hoping the horse could race. But it suffered medical complications and became incontinent. The constantly dripping urine has a corrosive effect on a hind leg. Still, Papp says the horse is capable of enjoying life, although she has little hope of placing him.

    "If that's his biggest problem in life, we're fine to manage him. But we wouldn't ask anyone else," she says.

    On this day, she sits on an overturned bucket and uses a portable x-ray machine to examine the leg of a horse. Papp says she routinely performs x-rays, not only to evaluate known injuries but to look for the beginnings of injuries.

    Papp and others say catastrophic injuries that end in euthanization often result from accumulated smaller injuries masked with drugs and not given time to heal.

    She says she won't use drugs to mask an injury or for any purpose other the therapeutic benefit of the horse. Sometimes the only fix is time away from training and racing. All too often, she contends, trainers use drugs to get horses to the starting gate.

    Yet even Papp uses Lasix, despite believing most horses lack a medical diagnosis to justify it. Lasix is responsible for about a length-and-a-half in performance, she says. She doesn't use it in a horse's first races. But eventually they would risk losing the horse in a claiming race to someone who would undoubtedly give it Lasix. So she uses it.

    However, Papp and Sims boast that in seven years of racing, including 100 or more starts per year, they have never put down a horse.

    "We want to prove it can be done," he says.