By John Pricci with Mark Berner

Not only in times of crisis do the stewards of Thoroughbred horseracing, The Jockey Club, have difficult questions to answer. Challenging issues inherently are part of the game and the time for problem solving is way past due.

Deep in the heart of every racetracker, devoted fan or horseplayer, is the knowledge that the sport, livelihood, and an entire way of life for generations of racetrack families, united by blood or love of the game, is now at peril.

The time for hand-wringing and shooting messengers has long since passed. Racing’s present goes far beyond politics, far beyond the recent tragic events at Santa Anita Park, which sadly are symptomatic of a much larger problem:

Survival, at every level of racing society.

Stakeholders who believe that this premise is just more hyperbole, or fear mongering, doomsday preaching or just sensationalism for the sake of commerce, are in denial and far more out of touch with reality than they know.

There are many—far too many—people who believe that horse racing’s time has come and gone, that it’s anachronistic and much, much more: It’s animal cruelty. And the story is as painful to chronicle as it is to ponder.

Because the sport is so structurally fractured, existing in a world that has grown far too complicated and sinister for everyday people in everyday life, is it even possible to escape an unthinkable inevitability, its demise?

Want to know what makes this tragedy so sad? Is it the perception that racing people don’t care enough to try, unwilling to take a shave and haircut now to avoid decapitation later, believing instead that this too shall pass?

Every person tethered to horses need to consider this: Because of the recent cluster of deaths at one of racing’s most prestigious and prideful venues, what would happen should, heaven forbid, a Kentucky Derby horse “takes a bad step?”

The deafening outcry that would follow another high profile mercy killing will never be silenced. Activists will convince the American public and government officials that horseracing should no longer exist because four-legged athletes have no choice in the matter.

To counter, the industry again rates to point fingers at all the usual suspects; negative publicity, a misunderstood sport, an undereducated public. They might even be desperate enough to resort to spreading the biggest lie of all, the notion of “fake news.”

Once again, industry leaders will refuse to look at a mirror inside their house. It will be too painful once they realize that their inaction is the problem; that they were too selfish to even consider painful solutions to a difficult and extremely complex issue.

The phrase that “the horse comes first” will ring hollow because a preponderance of evidence indicates otherwise.

“Sadly it is hubris believing that we can keep on giving these beautiful horses the drugs they are getting and thinking that there will be no consequences, especially in light of the recent tragedies,” said breeder Arthur Hancock.

“The debate about the connection of these breakdowns on the tracks and the use of powerful drugs such as Bute and Lasix is irrelevant.

“Perception is reality and it is quite clear what the perception of our sport will be if we don't clean up our act immediately.”

Hancock of Stone Farm in Paris, Kentucky is founder of the Water, Hay and Oats Alliance whose mission is to rid the sport of raceday medication. Its well-heeled members are hopeful their influence will lead to federal intervention via passage of a bipartisan bill, the Horseracing Integrity Act.

It is significant that the breeder/owner of dual Classics-winning Sunday Silence would take the lead on this since, at its core, racing’s problems begin and end at birth.

Breeding soft-boned, drug-dependent animals is one of many significant components that too often results in tragedy.

A majority of too-big-to-fail breeders dominate the high end of the sales market by using their wealth, influence and equal measures of achievement and speed to further the success of their industry-within-an-industry.

The question is whether American breeders accept an inherent challenge and change their approach for the betterment of the breed and future of the sport beyond present bottom line issues? If the recent past is prologue, they won’t.

Willing or not, breeders must be held to an ethical standard imposed by one central authority, The Jockey Club, that should lord over racing’s alphabet organizations because it has the clout to impose sanctions.

But before The Jockey Club can take action it first needs to have the same anti-trust exemptions enjoyed by major sports leagues in order to impose meaningful reform without fear of ruinous litigation. And their stick?

For rules violators, especially repeat offenders, they should refuse to register Thoroughbreds belonging to powerful owners and horsemen who flaunt the rules and otherwise fail to act in racing’s best long term interests.

For unwilling racetracks, refuse to produce and distribute past performance data, the foundation of the sport, until compliance is achieved. Of course, these measures are extreme. But compared to the challenges that lie ahead?

There is little doubt that unusual atmospherics in SoCal this year wreaked havoc with the racetrack. But horsemen who blamed the racing surface or aggressive racetrack policy were disingenuous. The problem is their overarching reliance on medication.

The recent cluster of fatalities is no anomaly. On average, 50 horses die at Santa Anita every year, a figure that includes catastrophic injuries and natural causes:

Non-exercise induced stable accidents, gastro-intestinal diseases [closely related to medication use], colic, colitis, enteritis, respiratory or neurological diseases and viruses such as West Nile or equine protozoal myeloencephalitis (EPM) are also included in the total.

During the 2007-2008 racing season, for example, there were 51 equine deaths. The 2008-2009 season saw 41 horses die. Thereafter, the annual death rate per season numbered 42, 37, 71, 43, 52, 46, 62, 64 and 44, respectively.

The present total of equine deaths from September 2018 forward is 31. Since July 1, 2007, 584 horses met untimely ends at Santa Anita according to California Horse Racing Board statistics.

The reason this is a national story is the high profile nature of the venue and cluster of deaths over a short period of time. Obviously, such clusters have happened before and will happen again if the roots of the problem are not properly addressed.

The problem is national, not regional. A study in New York confirmed that such a cluster occurred at Aqueduct in 2012 resulting in 22 equine deaths. In 2016 at Del Mar, there were 23 such fatalities.

Another spate of deaths occurred in Saratoga in 2017 where 17 died in racing or training, excluding two pre-meet deaths. The New York study of 2012 identified unsound, drugged horses as being part of the problem.

In Arizona last year, 50 equine fatalities sparked one legislator to call for the dissolution of the Arizona Racing Commission. It’s fair to question his agenda--but not the fact that raceday medication is legal in all 38 racing jurisdictions.

Arizona saw spikes in race-related fatalities in its 2016-17 season and again in 2017-18. In 2017, Arizona's fatality rate was 3.41 events per 1,000 starts, compared to a national average of 1.61 per 1,000 starts.

The Arizona Racing Commission on Thursday will review Turf Paradise’s application seeking a three-year renewal of its permit to operate through fiscal 2021. Beginning March 18, the track will conduct pre-race soundness exams by a group of three veterinarians led by Dr. Verlin Jones.

Including the 21 deaths at the current Santa Anita meet, this marks the fourth consecutive year that clusters of equine deaths due to catastrophic injury have occurred--in only three states: Arizona, California and New York.

To a mostly over-the-top animal-loving public, this is a deep-rooted ethical problem. In light of events in recent years, racing’s status quo posture in these matters is indefensible.

Economic pressures are, of course, part of this tragic landscape. The majority of horse owners without “Saturday horses” in their shedrows prompt their trainers to run and earn, by whatever means necessary. Tracks are no less aggressive as they seek to fuel racing’s economic engine, wagering handle.

While some advances have been made with regard to medication in recent years, the industry has consistently proven itself to be incapable or unwilling to police itself beyond a handful of token individuals.

Testing procedures are inadequate and those that have greater testing ability are grossly underfunded. Racing may no longer be “the sport of kings” but it is still should be necessary to pay if you want to play.

So, if not by federal fiat, who has the ability, the responsibility to lead the industry out of crisis? Only one, The Jockey Club, keepers of the two most powerful elements that sustain the sport; the Thoroughbred Registry and Equibase, owner and disseminator of past performance data.

The Jockey Club needs to take a much more vigorous role and stop hoping that the Barr-Tonko legislation will provide the duck and cover needed to evade the issue entirely.

The Jockey Club has stated for some time that it is against the use of raceday medication. Time has come to prove it before it’s too late: Wishes are not horses.

In response to the current crisis, trainer Graham Motion recently tweeted: “If there ever was a time to galvanize support for a national governing body in our sport, this would seem like another one of those watershed moments.”

TOMORROW: What the Jockey Club and Industry Must Do To Survive