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Survey: 5,000 deaths since '03

Thoroughbred tracks reported more than three horse fatalities a day last year.

June 15, 2008|From the Associated Press

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Thoroughbred racetracks in the U.S. reported more than three horse deaths a day last year and 5,000 since 2003, and the vast majority were put down after suffering devastating injuries on the track, according to an Associated Press survey.

Countless other deaths went unreported because of lax record keeping, the AP found in the broadest such review to date.

The catastrophic breakdown of filly Eight Belles at the Kentucky Derby last month made the fragility of a half-ton horse vivid for the millions watching, but the AP found that such injuries occur regularly in every racing state. Tracks in California and New York, which rank first and sixth in thoroughbred races, combine to average more than one thoroughbred death for every day of the year.

Questions about breeding, medication, synthetic surfaces versus dirt and other safety issues have dogged the industry for some time, and a congressional panel has asked key players in the sport to testify this week about its direction, particularly the influence of steroids.

The AP compiled its figures from responses to open-records inquiries sent to the organizations that govern the sport in the 29 states identified by Equibase Co., a clearinghouse for race results, as having had at least 1,000 thoroughbreds start a race last year.

Arkansas, Michigan and Nebraska said their organizations don't track fatalities at all, and only one of Florida's three main thoroughbred tracks provided numbers. There were wide differences among the other states in what types of deaths are monitored and how far back the records go.

"Nobody really knows how big of a problem it is," said Rick Arthur, California's equine medical director. "They just know it's a big problem."

When a horse breaks a leg -- let alone two, as Eight Belles did -- often the only choice is to euthanize the animal. A thoroughbred's bones are thinner than most breeds. Usually it's not possible for the horse to lie down for long periods because that could disrupt the blood flow to the arteries in the lower limb, causing an extremely painful hoof infection called laminitis.

Barbaro, who won the Kentucky Derby in 2006, broke down in the Preakness and was euthanized because of laminitis several months later.

Despite the regularity of such breakdowns and the money involved in the sport, no one is certain how many horses are lethally injected on the nation's tracks each year. The Jockey Club, which registers all North American thoroughbreds, did not know of another comprehensive, state-by-state tally of fatalities at tracks before the AP's, said Bob Curran, a Jockey Club vice president.

Larry Bramlage, the on-call veterinarian at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., who made the grim announcement that Eight Belles had been euthanized after the Derby, said fatality numbers don't seem to be dropping, despite major medical advancements.

"Just seeing the totals and the recurrent theme, it's eye-opening," said Bon Smith, assistant director of the California Horse Racing Board.

Although California's fatalities are nearly triple those reported by any other state since 2003, its warm weather and bounty of tracks make it the nation's busiest racing state.



State by state

The deaths by state reported in 2007 of thoroughbred horses:

Arizona: 60 deaths; 14,968 starts

Arkansas: N/A deaths; 4,222 starts

California: 261 deaths; 40,045 starts

Colorado: 3 deaths; 1,697 starts

Delaware: 20 deaths; 7,538 starts

Florida: 44 deaths (Calder Race Course

only); 30,423 starts (statewide)

Iowa: 21 deaths; 5,047 starts

Idaho: 5 deaths; 1,852 starts

Illinois: 63 deaths; 21,475 starts

Indiana: 22 deaths; 9,232 starts

Kansas: 7 deaths; 1,751 starts

Kentucky: 39 deaths; 23,180 starts

Louisiana: 68 deaths; 32,223 starts

Massachusetts: 12 deaths; 7,057 starts

Maryland: 25 deaths; 14,080 starts

Michigan: N/A deaths; 6,587 starts

Minnesota: 8 deaths; 4,348 starts

Nebraska: N/A deaths; 6,907 starts

New Jersey: 39 deaths; 8,730 starts

New Mexico: 52 deaths; 13,585 starts

New York: 113 deaths; 29,320 starts

Ohio: 58 deaths; 22,860 starts

Oklahoma: 35 deaths; 11,441 starts

Oregon: 14 deaths; 5,499 starts

Pennsylvania: 43 deaths; 30,214 starts

Texas: 25 deaths; 14,993 starts

Virginia: 8 deaths; 3,673 starts

Washington: 35 deaths; 6,963 starts

West Virginia: 91 deaths; 37,581 starts

Note: Arkansas, Michigan and Nebraska don't compile death numbers.

Also: Methods used for compiling fatality data vary widely by state. Some states include in their figures deaths that happened in training, barn accidents and other accidents or medical complications that occurred on a racetrack grounds. Some of the deaths listed may include breeds other than thoroughbreds killed during a mixed meet.

Source on death data: State horse racing governing bodies; Kansas totals from the Woodlands Racetrack; Florida totals from Calder Race Course. Source on thoroughbred start data: Equibase Co.

Associated Press

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