What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Why horses are dying at U.S. racetracks at an alarming rate

The Belmont Stakes marked the end of the Triple Crown on Saturday, but the focus of horse racing this year is centered on a tragic statistic: an average of 10 horses a week died at American racetracks in 2018, a fatality rate that is two-and-a-half to five times greater than in the rest of the horse racing world. New York Times reporter Joe Drape joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    After disqualification in the Kentucky Derby a riderless horse in the Preakness and different winners in both races there will be no Triple Crown winner after this evening's Belmont Stakes. But in horse racing this year the focus is not on the winners but on a tragic statistic nearly 10 horses a week on average died at American racetracks in 2018, a fatality rate that is two and a half to five times greater than in the rest of the horse racing world. Joining me now is New York Times reporter Joe Drape, who's covering the sport and the response to the deaths and injuries to these equine athletes. Sadly, we are only aware of this because of the news around big races or big race tracks that that number adds up to what 500 horses a year in the United States.

  • Joe Drape:

    Well it's actually a conservative estimate. We did a series in 2012 where we Freedom of Information everything. And we found 25 horses a week. And that's because we counted training accidents and things that happened off track. So this has been out there. I've looked at congressional testimony about this going back to the 1980s. This is not a secret. I think what happened is society is evolved the fact that it happened in California which is a progressive state especially during Triple Crown season because now this is when the casual fan turns out you don't want to see the big hats at the Derby. And then anything right.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You know we've heard for example some of the tracks in the bad weather I mean horses run in mud before. I mean what's so different about it this year?

  • Joe Drape:

    I think a couple of things happened. California got cold and rainy more so than it had in 25 years. But there's also a horse shortage. You have less horses. When I started doing this 20 years ago full crop was 35,000. Now we're down to 19,000. But at the same time people are. Racing year round at various tracks. I mean right now today within 200 miles there's nine tracks running not enough horses to go on. And then there's the drug culture and that's what we have focused on and the drug culture is kind of twofold. There's the people who cheat who try to take edges everywhere from Viagra to human growth hormone to put them into horses to make them faster. And then there's the people who just try to get them to the track much like football players to cortisone shots to play that game just to get them out of that out on the track to run its race and hopefully make some money.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Now is there. You know in bicycle racing for example there've been drugs have been abused and so right afterwards the athlete has to go and get tested is that the case with horses?

  • Joe Drape:

    There is testing. It's not terribly effective and there's 38 different jurisdictions and so there's no uniform drug laws or punishments. So it's kind of a patchwork of state by state and you know just like the human sports and the Olympics and cycling people were just way ahead of things. I mean they have their own labs but you know overall there's never been a big effort to catch people and to make sure that these horses are safe and sound and are used properly. That's obviously got to change.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But when you start talking about labs it reminds me this is a very expensive sport to be in and there's a lot of money at stake.

  • Joe Drape:

    There is I mean there's millions in purses billions and purses 15 billion dollars are bet on the horses throughout the year. You know it was the sport of kings for the reason they did it as sportsmen. They're not trying to live off their personal money but that dynamic has changed. You know 90 percent you have syndicates now where you've got 20, 40, 60 people putting in a little bit there. And you know they need to pay their way through the sport and that's where I believe the abuses start. You know you look the other way you're like get him out of the stall let's race them.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Is this moment likely to change the future of horse racing?

  • Joe Drape:

    This moment is going to change the future of horse racing. And it is either going to change it to where it doesn't exist anymore – out in California you only need 600,000 signatures on a ballot initiative to vote if it should even exist. Polls say that would be a close vote and it would. Probably in the sport in California if California falls it keeps going on across the country. What needs to happen is real reform. And unless there's more sort of model here I mean there's too much racing with too few horses and they need to be rested. They need to be treated like athletes like they once were in the 50s, 60s, 70s of their heyday. And when that happens and you know that's going to cause a lot of pain a lot of people are going to lose jobs whenever there's disruption jobs get lost. And you know that's we see it over and over and society. So you know people are going to lose their jobs and they're you throw people out or it's not going to exist. So that's where we are right now.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right. New York Times Joe Drape thanks so much.

  • Joe Drape:

    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest