Op/Ed: Synthetics, Fans, and the Future of Racing

Lucas Marquardt | courtesy of Lucas Marquardt


It's been another devastating month for horse racing. Even the most hardened racetrackers needed a few minutes to gather themselves when Maple Leaf Mel, steps away from a first Grade I, broke down in the Test at Saratoga on the Whitney undercard. It was a similar story on Saturday when the unbeaten New York Thunder, seemingly on his way to a spectacular victory in the GI H. Allen Jerkens, went down in mid-stretch and, in front of a crowd of 48,292, was humanely euthanized. It was the second fatality on the card, after Nobel (Ire) was put down following the day's fifth race.

Indeed, the numbers at Saratoga this meet are harrowing. New York Thunder was the eighth racing fatality. At least another four have died during morning training at Saratoga, bringing the total to 12. All 12 were trained by different trainers, including some of racing's most respected names–Christophe Clement, Graham Motion, Brendan Walsh and Kenny McPeek, among them.

Racing, it seems, just limps from one tragedy to the next.

It didn't, and doesn't, have to be like this. We've known for nearly 15 years how to reduce catastrophic breakdowns by 50% or more: synthetic tracks. I know these numbers have appeared in the TDN in recent months, but they bear repeating. According to The Jockey Club's Equine Injury database, from 2009 through 2022, there were 6,036 fatal injuries from 3,242,505 starts on dirt during the course of racing in North America.

That's a rate of 1.86 per start. (These numbers don't include fatalities that occur during morning training.)

On synthetics, there were 534 fatal injuries from 482,169 starts, a rate of 1.11. That's a 68% difference. Put another way, had dirt tracks matched the safety of synthetic tracks during that stretch, there would have been 2,437 fewer fatalities.

Despite great progress being made in California in recent years, the last two years have been even more striking. In 2021, the dirt rate (1.51) was more than twice the synthetic rate (0.73). In 2022, it was more than three times (1.44 vs. 0.41). At Gulfstream last year, there were eight fatalities from 5,886 starts on dirt, a pretty respectable 1.36. But on its synthetic track? One fatality from 7,085 starts, or a rate of just 0.14.

These stats show not just how much safer synthetic tracks are, but also illustrate why those who blame permissive medication or breeding trends are wrong. You simply wouldn't see this stark a difference between surfaces if those were the driving factors in racing fatalities.

As sad as it is, if racing continues this business-as-usual approach to racing surfaces, it's not hard to envision how all this ends: the end of the sport in all but a few parts of the country.

Most anyone could sketch the outline: the drumbeat from animal rights groups and unsympathetic media coverage gets loud enough to convince politicians to embrace either ballot referendums or the pulling of slot subsidies. The former, as it did with greyhound racing–now illegal in at least 42 states–kills horse racing jurisdictionally. The latter upends the sport's economics, depleting purse accounts and turning racing truly into the Sport of Kings, with small stables simply unable to justify the investment. Crop size, down from 40,000 in 1990 to roughly 17,000 last year, plummets further. Small breeding and stallion operations falter, with only the largest farms able to absorb the blow. Racing ultimately becomes an enterprise based largely around Kentucky and New York tracks. But once-popular tracks in Florida, California and Louisiana shutter. All the while field size dwindles and the betting product becomes less desirable.

This may take a decade or two, but we've been seeing this play out in real time, and if I was approaching 30 and not 50, I'd be very worried about my long-term prospects in the business.

Which brings us to racing's ability to attract people to it, be they horseplayers or owners or workers.

Every person reading this, and every fan and existing handicapper, myself included, has consciously or not decided that a certain level of catastrophic breakdowns isn't a disqualifying factor to our involvement in the sport. We recognize it is tragic and we mourn, but at the end of the day we conclude that our love of the sport and the animals themselves trumps that loss. But some in racing seem oblivious to the fact that there are many others who don't come to that conclusion; who have heard about the breakdowns at Santa Anita or Churchill or Saratoga and decided to do something else with their Saturday afternoons that doesn't potentially involve the death of an animal. They go to the mall, they go to the casino, they spend their disposable income elsewhere. The results of this are fewer people at the track or watching from home; fewer potential handicappers; fewer potential owners; fewer potential fans; fewer potential employees. And because there's no way to measure this, it's easy to pretend it's not happening, that jackpot wagers and bad advice from pundits and, yes, CAW wagering, are racing's biggest problems.

But talk to your friends and family outside of racing. Ask about their impressions. It's a pretty safe bet that animal welfare will be the first thing they bring up, and it's hard to believe that this isn't a huge impediment in attracting new fans. In recent weeks alone I've had several conversions with non-racing friends about the breakdowns at Churchill this past spring. A friend from NYC made the trip to Saratoga on Whitney Saturday and we spent the day texting about who to bet. After the Test, she texted, “Ah shit. I think that's it for us.” She and her husband left the track before the Whitney. Of course they did. How many people left before the Travers Saturday?

Racing's leaders have never cared to be vocal about this issue. This can't continue. Because if the current Saratoga meet has taught us anything, it's that we don't have a viable sport if we routinely break the hearts of our customers. And we can't attract new fans if people think we're not doing everything we can to protect our equine and human athletes. And right now, we aren't.

Lucas Marquardt is the owner of Thoro-Stride and a former writer for the Thoroughbred Daily News. 

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