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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


Hallandale Beach, FL, August 28, 2023 — Below is a reprint of a letter sent by Joe Applebaum, President of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, to his membership on Sunday in the wake of the tragic events that took place on Travers Day.

NYTHA Membership Services
Sunday, August 27, 2023

“What Now?” 
This is the message I received from so many of you as I walked around the Saratoga grounds, throughout the evening and into today. I don’t doubt that you were asked this question yourself as yesterday’s tragic events left so many of us sad, frustrated and questioning. These outcomes are clearly not what we all want for our horses. 
There is only one answer to the question. Do whatever is necessary to significantly lower the breakdown rate – driving it as close to zero as possible

The health and safety of our horses must come first. It’s as simple as that. Undoubtedly, you have heard platitudes like this before, but we all must understand there is no single solution, and no one is coming to save us. There is only investigation, evidence, structural change and the hard work of implementation.
We all want answers and we all want change as soon as possible, so this message may not seem sufficiently interventional or empathetic to meet the current tragedy, but we have faced this challenge before and this approach has worked.
In the winter of 2011/2012, we suffered a similar breakdown spike at Aqueduct. We responded with a thorough investigation, almost two dozen action items and a path to improved outcomes. Horsemen, NYRA, veterinarians and regulators all worked together and contributed to the solution. Consequently, this plan was adopted throughout the mid-Atlantic and twelve years later the region has 50% fewer breakdowns. 50%!

Horse racing’s social license will continue to be questioned, and we must take every effort to safeguard its future. Statistically, horse racing has never been safer, but attitudes – both the public’s and especially our own – have changed dramatically in the last twelve years. 
So what now?

Now is the time to re-examine and re-design every aspect of the sport. This is difficult, painstaking work, but it must be done.Sincerely,

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14 Responses

  1. Action or Solution? I rarely go by what people “of this caliber” say with their lawyers and PR people prepared this innocuous , abstract pablum. Until working solutions are being used, it is only a PR, cover your behind, smoke screen. I wish them all the best, for the ” Sport of Kings and Patricians”, and especially for the unknown number of horses who perish on the track, stable or in other places for injuries, medical reasons and other reasons somewhat similar to what yearly happened to thousands of Greyhounds, until a few yrs ago. It may seem an exaggeration my part, but if, after so many years of equine injuries and fatalities, in all regions of the country, just about Nothing has been done, why would a statement change anybody’s mind? Going by these connections’ “Past Performances,” it remains a wait and see attitude with low, satisfactory, expectations and results. Show me the proof. Show your guts instead of diplomatic words. If words are All you will have, as many have done, you have Nothing, as the problems will continue coast to coast and in between. The horses Really need a representative to defend them from different kinds of abuses. Don’t forget the Greyhounds, as my two dogs, Cleo and Mack, are reminding me with their looks.

  2. The fatalities of Maple Leaf Mel, Ever Summer and New York Thunder have hit me extra hard. The first 2 occurred while I was witnessing on track. I saw New York Thunder go down from my living room. I’m not an owner, trainer, breeder, groom and have never walked hots. My sole standing in the business is as a horse player – 50 years worth of action this year – who has always enjoyed attending live racing, especially at Saratoga.

    While I still favor cancelling the final 6 days of this meet, I will respect the decision rendered by professionals who place their livelihood and lives on the line in every race. If the jockeys say that the track is safe, I’ll second their opinion, yet still have major doubts. Maple Leaf Mel and New York Thunder broke down near the finish line on the Main Track. Coincidence ??? Perhaps. Faulty track ??? Could be. Underlying physical issues ??? Maybe. Surely an investigation will give us some of the needed facts. My problem today is that I lack the needed confidence to step in there again and bet with any confidence that my performers will win or just finish the race under these seemingly adverse circumstances. Breakdowns have also taken place on both turf courses. Excessive rain ??? You bet. It either rained or threatened to rain on all 5 days that I was at Saratoga this meet. Lots of races were washed off the turf. With break downs far too frequent and no synthetic track in place as an alternative (maybe there should be one), I will step aside from the game for a bit of time TBD.

    My message to NYTHA President, Joe Appelbaum, NYRA Officials, HISA and other stake holders is this: Do something fast and do something now. Fix this mess before it gets any worse. Don’t speak in general terms. Be specific. What are you willing to do – today – to reduce the carnage and then get the word out that you are serious about it. The thought that even one more of these glorious animals gets hauled away from the racetrack needlessly in a truck – never to return – will be enough for me and many thousands more to turn off the lights and bid our farewell to thoroughbred racing.

    John, I’ve used this phrase in your excellent pages before and I’ll roll it out again tonight. In action or inaction ??? Can we expect to see all responsible parties here in action to provide firm solutions to a crisis or will we witness more of the same inaction ??? There is an enormous amount at stake. Please choose wisely.

  3. JP–
    I echo Richard’s sentiments as I too am a loyal attendee of races at Saratoga.
    I was horrified to watch the brillaint Ruffian and gallant Go For Wand breakdown–but I saw those races on tv from the comfort of my living room. The breakdowns of Maple Street Mel and New York Thunder occured right in front of me at Saratoga. and I have never seen anything as horrifying as that in my 50 years at the rail in Saratoga.
    One of my colleagues notes that the drumbeats are getting louder and that it is a “false mantra” from the horse industry that horse welfare comes first. The time has come for the horse industry to put up or shut up and make dramatic change– and make it now!

  4. Collectively, philosophically, I am in agreement with these three longtime fans and supporters of Thoroughbred racing.

    My fear is that nothing significant will change until, once again, horses are bred for stamina, not sales ring good-looks and speed.

    But if that were to happen tomorrow, it will be decades before we see tangible results. Until then, the movement must be toward safer, synthetic surfaces. There is immense data proving AW tracks are safer, a lot safer.

    Which brings us back to economics. Most tracks simply don’t have the money to invest, unless it takes some money from purse accounts and pour it into track surfaces.

    All my horsemen friends will be angry because I’m “taking money out of their pockets?” But there is no need for pockets if there the game goes away. How much time does racing have? No one knows, but less and less of these breakdown clusters remain.

    So, as for the NYRA edict that horses must be vet-inspected three days before racing or training? Let’s say all horses pass go. What’s the point if the surface they run over is, on balance, not as safe as it needs to be?

    1. Just for curiosity, is that same problem evident in Great Britain, Ireland, Germany, Australia and France or are the victims , usually , sprinters as opposed to routers. Let get the ” Gods” out of this since not everyone believes in those superstitious symbols and created images. ” Just the Facts”. Don’t tell me what you plan to do… do it ! ‘ Recognizing’ a problem that has been under your nose for years is a laughable verb to use. Treating the public as degenerate cockroaches is a continuing Insult. That could be the worst thing you can do to your customers, patronage in Any Type of Conducting a Business Transaction. Once you lose them, most of them won’t ever come back.. while the younger demographics are staying away being too busy watching other,more exciting and enticing propositions, ie,marketing gimmicks. If I were a losing, or 50-50 bettor, would have been gone a long time ago, that’s another reason why on a regular day I usually skip several races, even on dry Saratoga days. Like I ve mentioned before , just because there s a Buffet table in front of me, I’d only choose among those items which wont give me ” Agida” ( Acidita’ ).If AW is the answer to Safety, change images, PR and a younger audience, isn’t that an Investment, instead of an Expense ? Hello , Is This Logic On ? Purses are way too high, as, again, I mentioned a couple of times before….Greedy Politocos-Owners-Trainers- Riders, Admit it ! ( not to mention that thick DRF program at some $ 10 each… Who needs Twelve-Thirteen tracks ? The same losers who devour everything at the Buffet table !! Brioschi with lemon,anyone ??

  5. Below is a private email I received from a friend, a New York horseplayer, breeder and owner. It is reprinted below with permission:

    I was devastated by the breakdown being but 75 yards from where it occurred .. a tough blow to us lifelong habitués of the racetrack.
    A notable pall hung in the air for awhile…with everyone offering their solutions, criticisms and sympathies.
    Me? I offered all those and a more ‘spiritual’ opinion.
    That being, that the racing Gods are pissed at us, big time. Twice in 2 weeks? Twice on national TV? Twice to undefeated potential/probable champions?
    Twice just before the finish line? If there is somehow divine intuition, it’s smacking us in the ass.

    I guess it’s easy to blame NYRA, as we need a finger to point to someone, but in essence, racetrack fatalities are down substantially in the last 10 years (or so I’m told) by the methods undertaken by most race track operators in America. Unfortunately the PETA ideologues will use this and, as our present society is wont, the ‘usual suspects’ will be castigated, vilified and new bullshit regulations will be enforced to further decimate the amount of owners participating, owing to the the costs associated to train a thoroughbred at a major thoroughbred venue. We are heading to an era that is reminiscent of the 30’s and 40’s, where horse racing was truly ‘the sport of kings’. Only now it’s kings, corporations, fractional ownerships and sheiks. Seemingly, once again, the screaming BLM-like crowd garners the attention of the politicians, some fans AND possibly, eventually the results they want.

    Oh well, America is getting incredibly adjusted to the 4% neigh-sayers of anything, manipulating the 96% that want improvement, but still want to keep ‘playing’..
    But back to the meat and potatoes, por favor, and my humble opinion:
    The industry has methodically bred for speed speed speed, over the last 50 years and it’s decimating the sport. The breeders advertise for speed, the sales venues advertise for speed and the racetracks accommodate it. Might be flashy and glitzy but the results have been getting too damning.

    I know I am an old fossil, but 22, 44’s, and 1:08’s eventually ‘catch up’ to these animals. As I’ve said many many times, this sport is centered around gambling, not 5 horse fields stretching their limits of physical endurance to satisfy Winstar, Coolmore and the stallion owners. Gamblers want 10 horse fields. Period! No matter the time, the distance or the benefit to a stallion in Kentucky.
    A wake up call has been given by the aforementioned racing Gods. We need to listen and change the things that really matter, like minimum distances and deeper racetracks.

    1. John, thanks for publishing the private e-mail above. The writer is “write on” the target. The TDN link (Sue Finley interviewing Mark Casse) was also outstanding. This is exactly what is needed – brainstorming by those in the know. Any rational ideas designed to correct an extraordinary situation spiraling out of control should be considered by our racing officials.

      Let’s start with the two break downs on the Main Track. Maple Leaf Mel went down suddenly just before the wire. New York Thunder fell at the 1/16 Pole. Could there be some underlying track weakness – that can be corrected by Glen Kozak and his expert maintenance staff – in the area along the inside approaching the Finish Line ??? How about temporarily using “Dogs Up” along that surface ???

      I’ll be a spectator only for the last six days of the Saratoga meet. I’d like to return to wagering but feel that it’s too soon after witnessing the devastating loss of two unbeaten, phenomenal superstars.

  6. Richard: The support for increased use of synthetic surfaces is growing every day and that is a good thing. More in the coming days on this existential matter…

    1. More must reading in Paulick Report: “Letter To The Editor: Industry Reactions To New York Thunder Ring Hollow” from August 28. The Author is Ryan Metzger, “owner, breeder, member of NYTHA and NYTB.” Mr. Metzger’s first-hand observations from Travers Day are raw, jarring, shocking and quite sad. He proposes sweeping changes – something all racing officials need to do immediately and put into action.

        1. Yogi Berra once said: “You can observe a lot by watching.” At Saratoga today, we are asking “What are they doing ???” Four of five turf races are still on. The 6th Race was moved to the Main Track, the 10th moved from the Inner to the Mellon. But the 1st was just raced over the Inner.

          John, is NYRA just trying to confuse the handicappers or is there some reason why these changes have been made ??? This has been the most baffling and regrettable Saratoga meet that I can remember in the last 40 plus years.

  7. Can’t blame them this time Richard. It has been common practice for many years to switch turf courses when many grass races have been carded to ensure that one won’t be overworked, especially after inclement weather. This tack makes sense and is a good idea…

    1. Thanks, John. I’m just hoping that The Old Spa gets through these last four days without any serious incidents. I’ll most likely stay on the sidelines until I’m convinced that the worst is over.

      The breakdowns were extra unnerving to me as I had two of them – Ever Summer and New York Thunder – as my Best Bets of the Day. I can accept losing and have found about 1,451 ways to get beat in a race (just a slight exaggeration) but I’m OK with it as long as each runner returns safe.

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