By Dick Jerardi
In my 33 years covering horse racing at the “Philadelphia Daily News,’’ I was never shy about criticism when criticism was necessary. When I set out to right a perceived wrong, I made certain to research a subject so my viewpoint could be supported by facts.
Does horse racing have significant issues on a national and local scale? Absolutely.
Have too many in positions of power in the game been too comfortable for too long? No doubt.
So, as there were when I started writing about the sport, unresolved issues remain. But there has been progress in making racing safer for the horses and caring for those horses as their racing careers come to an end. Any objective look at where the sport was a decade ago and where it is now would uncover that fact.
Embarrassingly, however, the “Inquirer’s’’ recent story on racing at Parx specifically and Pennsylvania in general got too many basic facts wrong. When you can’t get facts right, your credibility becomes the issue.
The story conflated statistics, which was either sloppy reporting or deliberately misleading. A chart that accompanied the article told a story very different than the one the author was trying to make. The chart showed the progress in horse safety that has been made in recent years while the author, focusing on just one outlier year (2019), was arguing the opposite.
It is a sad fact that some horses suffer catastrophic injuries during races. I was at Belmont Park in 1990 when Go For Wand broke down yards from the finish line at the Breeders’ Cup. I was there at Pimlico in 2006 when Barbaro’s right hind ankle shattered just yards into the Preakness. I have been there on regular race days when a horse breaks down. It is always heartbreaking, more so for the people that care for the animals that anyone else. In a perfect world, the number of breakdowns would be zero. It is not a perfect world, but the object is to get as close to zero as possible.
For some unknown reason, there were more racing deaths at Parx in 2019 than the four years that preceded it, but still significantly down from 2013 and 2014.
“The horsemen, the racing commission, the vets, we all started to take steps,’’ said Sal DeBunda, the president of the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. “That’s all been outlined by the commission, all the different things we did.’’
DeBunda told the author how the industry responded should be part of the story, that “we’re heading back toward zero.’’ Nothing DeBunda told the writer about the steps taken appeared in the article.
In fact, the writer conflated the 2019 numbers and essentially ignored a dramatic decrease in racing-related deaths in 2020. In 2019, horses made 12,312 starts at Parx, with 32 racing-related deaths. There were also six deaths during training and 22 at the barns from diseases such as colic which can happen to horses whether they are in training or not.
The writer took all 60 deaths and concluded there were 4.9 deaths per 1,000 starts. The actual number was 2.6 deaths per 1,000 starts, not acceptable, but nearly 50 percent lower than the writer erroneously stated.
In 2020, there were just 8,284 starts at Parx as the track was closed for three months due to the pandemic. There were nine racing-related deaths at Parx or just 1.1 per 1,000 starts. Those numbers were not included in the article.
The “Inquirer’’ story would suggest that almost every horse in training is on some illegal drug and thus susceptible to breakdowns. The suggestion is not supported by anything other than a few anecdotes and generalities.
The article quotes Lee Midkiff who “owned Animal Kingdom when the stallion won the 2011 Kentucky Derby,’’ saying he was so disgusted with the drug use he left the sport.
Animal Kingdom was actually owned by Team Valor, a syndicate run by Barry Irwin. According to Animal Kingdom’s trainer Graham Motion, Midkiff was one of many members of the syndicate that owned Animal Kingdom, but saying he was the owner “would be a stretch.’’
Yes, there are cheaters, but the vast majority of owners and trainers want the cheaters out so as to level the playing field. There are veterinary exams before races, at the gate, and post-race drug tests. Anybody that cheats should be banned.
Could the testing be better and more uniform from state to state? Yes. Will the new federal Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, signed into law in December, make it better when the United States Anti-Doping Agency takes over testing on a national basis? Hopefully.
For some unknown reason, the “Inquirer’’ article linked indicted for alleged illegal drug use trainers Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro with Pennsylvania racing, saying those two trainers “have raced hundreds of horses at Parx and Penn National.’’
In fact, Servis raced mainly in Florida, New Jersey, and New York. Navarro raced mostly in New Jersey and Florida
In 2020, before he was indicted and ruled off every track in America, Servis started 92 horses. One was at Parx and none at Penn National. In 2019, Servis started 519 horses – 18 at Parx, 3 at Penn National.
In 2020, before his indictment, Navarro had 134 starts, with none in Pennsylvania. In 2019, Navarro started 769 horses – 57 at Parx, 51 at Penn.
The article discusses XY Jet, a horse trained and allegedly given illegal drugs by Navarro. The horse won more than $3 million in 26 career races. None of those races were in Pennsylvania. Marcos Zulueta, a trainer who was based at Parx and was allegedly working with Navarro, was immediately tossed out of the track after the indictments were made public.
The story mentions the Servis-trained Maximum Security won the first “Saudi Cup in Dubai.’’ Wouldn’t it make more sense for the Saudi Cup to be run where it was actually run – Saudi Arabia?
The writer says as he has in previous stories about horse racing, that attendance is way down at Pennsylvania tracks. The reality is nobody knows the attendance because there is no admission. The other reality is that 90 percent of the money bet on horse racing is bet away from the track and it has been that way for years so “attendance’’ is essentially irrelevant.
DeBunda said he explained to the writer he “believes horses racing are as safe as the horses who are not racing because they are treated like athletes, their temperature is taken, their joints are touched, they’re exercised. If they have a problem, there is a vet called in right away to give them the proper treatment or medication. They are looked at in the morning by a vet to see if they are fit to run in the race. A jockey can scratch a horse at any time. A vet can scratch a horse, even at the gate…If they are out in the field somewhere, they can run into a fence, get hit by lighting, they can run into each other.’’
DeBunda was quoted in the article, but without any of the reasons cited above.
DeBunda also told the writer about Parx’s “Turning for Home’’ program, the now almost 13-year-old horse rescue program that has become the model for the industry.
Horses at the track are regularly examined by TFH’s team of vets. Once an owner or trainer decides a horse is no longer competitive or might be in danger of developing an injury, that horse is retired from racing and Turning for Home’s team then finds a forever home for the horse where he can live out his years on a farm, often with a new career as a fox hunter or dressage horse, something less stressful than racing.
More than 3,200 horses have been retired through the Turning for Home program. The program is largely funded by a $30 per start fee from the owners. If an owner or trainer is caught trying to sell an infirm horse outside the track rather than giving the animal to Turning for Home, they are banned from the track.
There was no mention of Turning for Home in the article.