Racehorses, riders continue to be put at risk by drugs, lax regulation
At 2:11 p.m., as two ambulances waited with motors running, 10 horses burst from the starting gate for a 300-yard contest at Ruidoso Downs Race Track, 6,900 feet up in New Mexico's Sacramento Mountains.
Nineteen seconds later, under a brilliant blue sky, national champion jockey Jacky Martin lay sprawled in the furrowed dirt just past the finish line, paralyzed, his neck broken in three places. On the ground next to him, his frightened horse, Phire Power, leg broken and chest heaving, was minutes away from being euthanized on the track.
For finishing fourth on this early September day last year, Jacky Martin got about $60 and possibly a lifetime tethered to a respirator.
The next day, it nearly happened again. The jockey escaped serious injury, but not the 2-year-old horse, Teller All Gone. He was euthanized and then dumped near an old toilet in a junkyard a short walk from where he had been sold at auction the previous year.
On average, 24 horses die each week at racetracks across America. Many are inexpensive horses racing with little regulatory protection in pursuit of bigger and bigger prizes. These deaths often go unexamined, the bodies shipped to rendering plants and landfills rather than to pathologists who might have discovered why the horses broke down.
In 2008, after Kentucky Derby horse Eight Belles broke two ankles on national television and was euthanized, Congress extracted promises from the racing industry to make its sport safer. While safety measures such as bans on anabolic steroids have been enacted, assessing their effect has been difficult because many tracks do not keep accurate accident figures or will not release them.
But an investigation by The New York Times has found that industry practices continue to put animal and rider at risk. A computer analysis of data from more than 150,000 races, along with injury reports, drug test results and interviews, shows an industry still mired in a culture of drugs and lax regulation, and a fatal breakdown rate that remains far worse than in most of the world.
If anything, the new economics of racing are making an always-dangerous game even more so. Faced with a steep loss of customers, racetracks have increasingly added casino gambling to their operations, resulting in higher purses but also providing an incentive for trainers to race unfit horses.
Martin's injury occurred in a state with the worst safety record for racetracks, a place where most trainers who illegally pump sore horses full of painkillers to mask injury — and then race them — are neither fined nor suspended, and owners of those drugged horses usually keep their winnings.
The failure of regulators to stop that cheating is reflected in the numbers. Since 2009, records show, trainers at U.S. tracks have been caught illegally drugging horses 3,800 times, a figure that vastly understates the problem because only a small percentage of horses are tested.
During the same period, according to the Times analysis, 6,600 horses broke down or showed signs of injury. Since 2009, the incident rate has not only failed to go down, it has risen slightly.
The greatest number of incidents on a single day — 23 — occurred last year on the most celebrated day of racing in America, the running of the Kentucky Derby. One Derby horse fractured a leg, as did a horse in the previous race at Churchill Downs. All told, seven jockeys at other tracks were thrown to the ground after their horses broke down.
A state-by-state survey by The Times shows that about 3,600 horses died racing or training at state-regulated tracks during the past three years.
Even some of America's most prestigious tracks, including Belmont Park, Santa Anita Park and Saratoga Race Course, had incident rates higher than the national average last year, records show.
Why racehorses break down at such a high rate has been debated for years, but the discussion inevitably comes back to drugs.
Laboratories cannot yet detect the newest performance-enhancing drugs, while trainers experiment with anything that might give them an edge, including chemicals that bulk up pigs and cattle before slaughter, cobra venom, Viagra, blood doping agents, stimulants and cancer drugs.
Even so, legal therapeutic drugs — pain medicine in particular — pose the greatest risk to horse and rider. In England, where breakdown rates are half of what they are in the United States, horses may not race on any drugs.
Illegal doping, racing officials say, often occurs on private farms before horses are shipped to the track. Few states can legally test horses there.
"They are pharmacist shops," said Dr. George Maylin, the longtime head of New York State's testing laboratory. "Nobody has any control over what they are doing."
Amid criticism that individual state racing commissions lacked the will to make the sport safer, and the threat of federal oversight, the industry promised changes, including new restrictions on the use of drugs, a program to accredit racetracks and drug-testing laboratories, and uniform rules for punishing drug violators.
The industry also set up a national database where tracks were asked, but not required, to report injuries with the promise of confidentiality.
The response to these reform measures has fallen short.
Fifty-five tracks pledged they would seek accreditation, requiring among other things pre-race inspections and postmortem examinations, or necropsies. Fewer than half have kept their promises.
"Some tracks do not have the money to spend to meet our standards; others think it's window dressing and why bother," said Michael Ziegler, executive director of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Safety and Integrity Alliance. "Any follow-up with tracks has gone unanswered."
Masking or healing pain?
Breakdowns can be caused by a variety of factors, but drugs, often used to mask existing injuries, are the prime suspect.
Necropsies are considered essential to determining whether an existing injury contributed to a fatal breakdown. However, only 11 states require them, a Times survey found.
In California, where necropsies are required, researchers found that a "large majority" of horses had existing problems at the site of their fatal injuries.
"To be fair, some of that is microscopic and may not be readily apparent," said Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California Racing Board. "We're trying to figure out why vets and trainers are not identifying injuries prior to catastrophic injuries."
But many prior ailments are indeed serious. The Times obtained hundreds of necropsy reports on racehorses that died in Pennsylvania and found problems that included "severe degenerative joint disease," "severe chronic osteoarthritis" and pneumonia with "severe, extensive" lung inflammation. One horse had 50 stomach ulcers. Another had just one eye. Pathologists also found metal screws in two horses that had broken bones from previous accidents.
In the United States, horses usually are allowed to run on some dose of pain medication, usually phenyl butazone, or bute. The question, fiercely debated in the racing community, is at what level do therapeutic drugs make racing unsafe?
Virginia's fatality rate went up after regulators in 2005 raised the allowable level of bute to 5 micrograms from 2 micrograms. "Our catastrophic incidents increased significantly," said Dr. Richard Harden, equine medical director for the state racing commission.
Virginia returned to the lower level in 2009, though the fatality rate has not come down.
Kent H. Stirling, chairman of the national medication committee for the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, said there was "no scientific evidence whatsoever" that 5 micrograms of bute on race day is dangerous.
Stirling and others say sore horses should not be denied therapeutic medicine when needed. "If you're a horseman and you're trying to keep a horse going and keep him happy and healthy as you can, then these therapeutic medications are very helpful," he said.
Regulators typically view prescription drug violations as more benign than the use of banned substances on horses. And they constitute the bulk of the 3,800 violations that The Times found by surveying racing states.
But others, including racing regulators overseas, say horses should not compete on any drug regardless of type.
"Therapeutic drugs, by definition, are used for healing and curing," said Arthur B. Hancock III, whose Stone Farm in Paris has produced three Kentucky Derby winners. "Drugs that mask pain and enhance performance are not 'therapeutic.' They are what they are: performance-enhancing drugs."
The industry group that runs graded stakes races had promised to ban all therapeutic drugs for 2-year-olds, but it backed off in late February, saying it did not have enough time to bring state regulators on board.
George W. Strawbridge Jr., a prominent breeder and owner, resigned from the group over that decision, calling it "one of the most craven acts" he had seen.
"How on earth did we get to this sorry state?" he said. "The first reason is that in this country there are no significant consequences for doping horses."