FARMINGTON — Casual observers of horse racing often think of the Kentucky Derby first and foremost. The mint juleps, the crazy hats, the fashion and the money all are part of what many call “the most exciting two minutes in sports.” The first jewel of the Triple Crown attracts viewers who might not watch another horse race the entire year.
There are plenty of hardcore fans, too. The most recent Harris Poll listed horse racing as the 13th-most popular sport among American adults — ranked ahead of women’s soccer.
There is a dark side to the industry, though, and the controversy surrounding the number of animals dying in the past few years has cast a negative light on the sport. Specifically, the number of fatalities at thoroughbred tracks in Santa Anita, Calif., and Calgary, Alberta, have dominated equine headlines this year.
Closer to home, Finger Lakes Gaming & Racetrack has suffered a recent spate of deaths.
According to Equibase, one of the most comprehensive statistical websites in thoroughbred racing, Fabulous Prince died July 15 at Finger Lakes after suffering a fractured skull in the starting gate. The Equine Death & Breakdown from Open Data NY indicated that Fabulous Prince reared up in the starting gate and flipped backwards, and the resulting injury required euthanasia.
While considered an unusual accident, Fabulous Prince was the fourth horse to die at FLGRT in a six-day span. Beginning July 10, D Emcee, She’saKittyKat and Ransom Note were euthanized before Fabulous Prince’s accident.
“It is nothing unusual,” said Patrick Battruello, an animal rights activist and the founder, director and president of Horse Racing Wrongs, a nonprofit agency that wants to eradicate horse racing in the United States. “This is just business at usual for Finger Lakes and the business at large. This is what happens every day in the industry.”
According to the Equine Death & Breakdown from Open Data NY, the number of equine deaths in New York state has declined in recent years. Finger Lakes Gaming and Racetrack is part of that trend, as the number of horses dying there has decreased since 2017.
While that seems like a step in the right direction, the anti-horse racing folks maintain the problem starts at the core.
“Horse racing has always been viewed as a sport in this country,” Battuello stated. “It is the big obstacle that we face. We need people to see what it is: animal exploitation.”
Finger Lakes Gaming and Racetrack issued the following statement to the Times in response to the recent fatalities:
“Finger Lakes remains committed to providing the safest racing operation possible for its equine athletes and those who care for them,” the statement read. “Despite this recent time frame, since the start of 2018, we have experienced fatalities at below (74 percent) the 2018 national average in terms of racing fatalities per 1,000 starts.
“Providing for the safety and welfare for those involved with racing is a continuous process that requires constant attention and evaluation. In addition to being accredited annually by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Safety and Integrity Alliance since 2011, we continually look at emerging industry best practices and consult with local, state and national experts to adjust operational processes for further improvement.”
While mistreatment of horses is a factor in some deaths, the animals can develop natural diseases or illnesses that require euthanasia. Hoof infections such as abscesses and laminitis often occur in horses, and colic can lead to death as well.
Colic and laminitis were responsible for two of the four recent deaths at Finger Lakes.
Critics argue a contributing factor to the high death toll among thoroughbreds is that trainers and equine veterinarians do not hesitate to put a horse down, even on the track, so that the animal doesn’t suffer. However, when a horse breaks its leg, its chances of survival are slim, and if it does survive, laminitis and other infections often result.
The debate about equine safety that is enveloping thoroughbred racing isn’t going away anytime soon. Nor does it seem likely the sport will cease to exist in the foreseeable future. There is simply too much money and too many power brokers involved.
Ultimately, it’s a messy situation with no clear resolution to make all involved happy.