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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


photo compilation by HRI Staff

Equine fatalities at New York Racing Association racetracks have significantly lessened in recent years. However, some trainers consistently send out horses that breakdown at a higher rate than the average. The data used for this study comes from the New York State Gaming Commission database. It follows that the most breakdowns go to those barns that start the most horses. Percentages, however, tell a different story.

Dr. Scott E. Palmer, DVM, recently testified at a New York State Senate public hearing that after a spate of equine fatalities at Aqueduct Race Track during the winter of 2011-2012, there has been a 46% reduction in racing fatalities at Thoroughbred racetracks in New York, including NYRA’s three racetracks, Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga, and Finger Lakes.

Palmer reported that racing fatalities in New York in 2018 averaged 1.29 per 1,000 starts, well under the national average of 1.68.

By comparison, Churchill Downs was second highest in the nation last year at 2.73 per 1,000, and Santa Anita, which suffered a rash of fatalities this winter, averaged 2.36 fatalities per 1,000 starts for 2016-2017 season, the latest listing made available by the California Horse Racing Board.

The New York State Gaming Commission’s Equine Breakdown, Death, Injury and Incident Database is a great source of information and, despite Palmer’s good work, the numbers therein are disturbing.

Trainers with large, medium and small stables all have sent out horses which met their demise on NYRA racetracks. Larger barns, as stated, have higher mortality figures but small to medium-sized outfits are of greater concern when measured against the larger ones.

A five-year HorseRaceInsider study, from July 28, 2014 through July 27, 2019, focuses on NYRA’s deadliest trainers. Some with the higher numbers were expected empirically, others were surprising.

The top ten are listed below. Just beneath those are two worthy of a dishonorable mention; John T. Toscano Jr. and Patrick Quick, two smaller outfits who both have had five equine fatalities in five years.

Toscano averages a bit under 300 starts per year and Quick averages only 75 starters, making his percentage much higher. The figures on Quick show one death per 77, percentage-wise the deadliest trainer at NYRA tracks. By comparison, Toscano has one fatality for each 290 starters.

Tied in a triple dead-heat for 10th with six mortalities each are, Danny Gargan; former jockey turned trainer Randi Persaud, and the recently retired David Jacobson. Gargan averages just over 230 starts per year, 1-for-293 starters, Persaud averages over 250 starters and is 1-for-258. Jacobson averaged just under 600 starts per year. Statistically, he was 1-for-489. 

Looking at this from the other side, Gargan has 292-of-293 starters return without fatal consequences, Persaud is 257-for-258, and Jacobson was 488-for-489.

Gary Gullo, a second-generation trainer, has seven, a significant number considering a relatively small operation with an average of 225 starts per year, which works out to one death for every 162 runners.

Tom Morley also has a small operation, which makes his eight equine fatalities in five years an unpleasant surprise. His average of one death for every 142 starters leads the top-ten list of deadliest trainers at NYRA tracks. Morley, like Gullo, only starts about 225 horses each year.

Tied with Morley at seventh with eight dead horses is Jeremiah Englehart. Father Chris Englehart had nine fatalities and rates sixth, giving the family a combined total of 17, very disturbing statistic. The father-son combination each average about 700 starts per year. The elder Englehart has one death for every 378 starters; the younger is 1-for-446.

The top five deadliest trainers at NYRA are all in double figures, averaging two or more deaths per year.

Linda Rice is fifth with ten euthanized horses that broke down at NYRA tracks. Rice averages approximately 660 starts per year and one death for every 330 starters.

Rudy Rodriquez, another jockey turned trainer, ranks fourth with 11 equine fatalities. Rodriquez averages over 700 starters per year with a fatality rate of 1-for-325.

Tied for second with 12 each are Chad Brown, whose sheer numbers diminish his percentage and Gary Contessa, who has far fewer horses than Brown and averages over 500 starts per year. Brown averages over 650 runners each year and has one death for every 314 starters. Contessa averages one in every 222 starts, making Contessa’s figures deadlier than Brown’s.

The highest number of equine deaths belongs to Todd Pletcher, whose 16 deaths in five years averages 3.2 per year. However, the overall percentage is lower. Pletcher starts nearly 1,110 horses yearly and has a fatality rate of 1-for-339.       

Expecting zero equine deaths per trainer is unrealistic but some of these numbers are excessive. The NYSGC should look into the data to determine if any trainers have records that are outside the boundaries of reason.

Isn’t it better that racing officials do the culling before legal authorities, spurred on by an unknowing public, decide that the sport’s right to exist is no longer worth their time and effort?

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59 Responses

  1. Jesus I actually noticed this some of this in the last few days putting data tables together. Interesting to see the “trainer” perspective. Stepping outside and looking at data from all perspectives is key.

  2. Nena-
    It is all there, but adjusting the search gives a different perspective. Hope things are going smoothly with your data tables.

  3. Great information, MB, but why not use grids to display both the data and the patterns they generate?

    1. I-
      This site is new and it’s all I can do to keep up, if that. Thanks, but when you see grids I will have advanced that far. Maybe you can teach me…not too old to learn.

  4. Excellent analysis Mark. Five year time period seems appropriate to rule out variables such as track condition and seasonal weather as factors. My only question are these fatalities during racing or do they include training , too. Surprised to see Tom Morley has having highest fatalities per starter(actually shocked). Not surprised to see trainers such as Mott, Mccaughey, Jimmy Jerkens ,Barclay Tagg and other true horsemen NOT on the list.
    Only major pattern I see is the names are all “miracle” workers off the claim with the exception of Morley, Contessa,Brown and Pletcher. Take care Kevin

  5. Thank You Mark … aside from stating the FACTS … best news herein is Jacobson is retired! Every owner should have knowledge of these stats before entrusting their horse into one of these deadly shedrows.

  6. These numbers don’t seem that high. Would be interesting to see year after year considering number of horses being trained who has more..

  7. Thank you for posting these statistics. I’m not sure I see much that is startling. Todd Pletcher & Chad Brown start 9,000 runners over 5 years and lose 28 in that period, to various illnesses,and accidents. I wonder if there is documentation of NEGLECT,as a cause of death.Those would be the trainers of concern. Pat Quick and Randi Persaud do not stable the same quality of stock as many of the names on this list, and their numbers reflect that. Chris and Jeremiah Englehardt are both highly respected horsemen, and though the number of fatalities are high,Jeremiah sends 446 runners to the gate and 445 of them return safe. I would NOT call that irresponsible.

  8. Kevin-
    The NYSGC database includes injuries and fatalities both racing and training. I chose to focus on fatalities, whether racing or training.

  9. Susan-
    Thank you. The data is there for everyone and owners can and should check first. Today’s owners are not deep pocketed, but the drive-thru variety expecting instant results, a totally different game.

  10. Larry-
    I chose a five-year study because that’s enough time to establish patterns and not rely on quirks or a run of bad luck that could exist in a shorter study. I would bet the results would remain the same if the study ran for ten years.

  11. Harvey-
    Some results were predictable and others were surprising. I only presented facts, as some of the back stories aren’t pretty and I didn’t want to prejudice the data.

  12. Horse Race Insider thought long and hard before posting this piece, but the data stated are facts, not opinions, and are a matter of public record. Accidents cannot be prevented, that’s why they are called accidents,

    Life of man or beast is guaranteed no one, of course, but horsemen should take the extra step, the extra precaution. Rethinking the use of race-day medication would be a good start.

    As Dr Palmer states, the rate of breakdowns is improving and that trend must continue. More pro-action, less reaction, fundamentally is in the game’s best interest. Just like one hears from a debate stage; health care should be a right not a privilege, especially those whose responsibility is to protect those rights for the animal who cannot speak.

    It is better that the industry takes the steps necessary to help ensure its survival before government, pressured to shut it down, does exactly that. The industry must do everything it can to show the American people that it is willing to sacrifice for the greater good.

    Continued, next steps must be chosen wisely. As we consider American values in the current atmosphere, we see that the worst imaginable outcomes are possible. They can and do happen here. Apathetic adherence to the status quo in the interests of commerce is not an acceptable “new normal.”

    1. What the hell makes you think those horse deaths are ACCIDENTS? They are mistakes and omissions of diagnostic tests. Because many trainers believe that slight lamenesses are superficial and are not investigated. That is negligence. And every trainer better start carrying malpractice insurance. Because when insurance companies won’t insure them they will be out of business and good riddance. Don’t even dream of defending even 1 horse death on the racetrack.

  13. What are the ages of the horses that broke-down? How many broke-down in a stake race, an allowance race, or a claiming race? What is the average number of starts of the horses that broke-down? I’m not stunned by the percentages of fatalities incurred by the trainers mentioned. Thoroughbreds are bred to race and injuries s/be expected.

    The statistic I would find more interesting is the number of thoroughbreds that were injured but not euthanized listed by trainer.

    The trend is moving in the right direction: fewer fatalities.

  14. Interesting data. I would expect fatality rates to be higher for trainers that tend to run lower claiming type horses.

    Why not present the data as a percentage of fatalities per starts by trainer for the five year period. For example, 1.29 per 1000 relates to .129 % of the 2018 starts at New York Tracks. How do these trainers perform to the overall average?

  15. The data, as you present it, obsfuscates the message you seek to convey. As national statistics are presented in fatalities/1000 starts, you should endeavor to make the comparison accordingly. Presenting a ranking of five year fatality totals for trainers with wildly varying number of starts per year ,tends to sensationalize the data in an unnecessary way. All that being said, thanks for your effort.

  16. There are more factors at play here than have been spoken of. For example, and the most important, who was on the back of the animals that broke down.

  17. Wendel-
    The database tells where on the track the injury took place and what the injury to the horse was, but you’d need to sit down with the charts to know the age, class and distance.

  18. T McDermott-
    The data studied was over a five-year period at NYRA tracks. some train elsewhere for part of the year and those fatalities were not included. The percentage were calculated by using total starts over that time period. It is conceivable that the numbers are worse if those trainers had fatalities outside of NYRA tracks.

  19. eshaka-
    Thanks. The deaths/thousand is a good measure to judge the industry as a whole but not individuals. Some in this study didn’t even have 1,000 starts over the five year period. I used the percentages to add perspective.

  20. Teddy-
    That would make another interesting study. Not all riders are listed in the database because not all the horses died in races. Some died in training and some died later as a result of an injury sustained on the track.

  21. The numbers are revealing and in some cases damning. I don’t think I have the patience or perseverance to do the research you did.

    One stat I would like to see is how many deaths occurred during winter racing.

  22. MarkBell-
    You raise a lot of legitimate questions, but unfortunately none of the treatment info your talking about is publicly available. I’ve pushed for The Jockey Club to use an ID chip with enough storage for lifetime medical history and an active biological passport from birth or the time of chipping, but that never got any traction. Too many people want to keep that stuff a secret.
    We can track the racing history, but we’ll never know about many of the other variables you mention. That makes it impossible to assess all aspects of fatalities.
    I have a printout that’s an inch thick and can tell you without researching all those pedigrees that genetics plays a big role.
    I do think racing is turning the corner towards more transparency, but this is a game where money rules over ethics.

  23. Mark, respectfully, your two statements make the point…
    “…..but we’ll never know about many of the other variables you mention. That makes it impossible to assess all aspects of fatalities.”
    “I have a printout that’s an inch thick and can tell you without researching all those pedigrees that genetics plays a big role.”
    So, knowing all this, why lay all the death on the trainers? You could have mentioned both of these points (and others) in the original article.

    “Deadliest Trainers” is complete sensationalism. They are sometimes just the folks picking up the pieces and making the heartbreaking phone call. Everybody involved in racing has a part in it and an ongoing responsibility.

    1. MarkBell, it’s really not sensationalism. Its really simple, some trainers kill more horses than others. Some trainers hardly lose any. It’s a personal, day-in-day-out choice. Your protective reactionism and throwing all these inane things at the wall reveals a deep naiveté about training and racing horses. Autodidactic is a good description.

      1. Aunt Bea, Of course it’s sensationalism and there’s nothing protective about my commentary.

        I would prefer that any trainer that sends out a horse that he knows or suspects is not fit to train or race should be hung from the gallows. The point is that the post is dramatic and misleading and doesn’t consider many of the influencing factors. Subsequently, the author himself has acknowledged this.

        If you run a business with three employees and one dies from a sudden heart attack, does that make you the deadliest employer in town with a 33% fatality rate?

        If Aiden O’Brien sends 8 horses over for the Belmont festival and they get hit by a small plane while back-tracking on the main track, by the parameters of this report, he will suddenly be NYRA’s deadliest trainer.

        Calling for a cull of the trainer ranks without an in-depth investigation of the issues is grossly irresponsible. The subject is serious and deserves serious reporting.

        1. Mark-
          Hypotheticals aside, most trainers at NYRA had no fatalities during the five year period, while others are repeat offenders. The repeat offenders that have fatalities year after year aren’t random.

          1. The Zero Fatalities story would be a great subject for another piece.

            The repeat offenders year after year are big barns with especially high volume of horses so they are probably within norms and statistically helped the overall reduction % as you mentioned. With the exception of one that you have surely already figured out and another that retired halfway through the period you studied, all the other names you listed have years since and including 2014 with zero fatalities, In most other years it has been one fatality, either racing, training or non-racing/training related. Does that make them deadly?

            Interestingly, in a Zero Fatalaties story, if based on the last two years, the guy you called out as the deadliest of all would be top of the good guy list!

  24. Looking more at your study results and having a scientific background, Mark, you have done more of a observation study with a timeline of 5 years and data(fatatlies over number of starters for NY trainers) It is a good starting point for discussion but cannot be a placebo, randomized doubleblind study-the gold standard for a scientific studies.
    As Mark Bell correctly points out there are numerous potential confounding factors that could bias the results. This could lead to inappropriate conclusions as to what trainer is more dangerous to horses by having more fatalities.
    I think you have done a very good job of data collection and praise you for a job well done. It is a topic many would rather ignore, but due to recent events and politics needs to be explored. Thank you for your work and always enjoyed you at Newsday along with John.

  25. Kevin-
    I appreciate your input. I thought five years would take a lot of the minor variables out of the equation. However, you are right that I’m not a scientist. The good thing this study showed is that most trainers at NYRA racetracks had no horses that suffered fatal injuries during that time.

  26. Mr. Berner:

    Good morning. Have opined that I believe that they should only pay purse money through 4th place, as they used to do, inducing complete soundness before competing. Have to believe this would reduce the number of fatalities. Strict rules regarding dangerous lane changes, wandering, aggressive riding, and enforcement with stiff mandatory suspensions would also reduce fatalities and inquiries. Jockeys would not do the intentional things they do if they knew they would be suspended. Irad Ortiz being one of the worst offenders. A man who can control a horse like nobody’s business. Get rid of Lasix and Leftists in the Stewards booth.

  27. Teddy-
    Good morning. To properly access soundness before a race, horses need to be off the drugs that mask pain. A recent piece I did about new CATscan technology would also be very useful to judge pre-race soundness. I understand what you say about jockeys but I think drugs more directly effects fatalities.

  28. I see one major flaw in your patterning – you used “total starts,” but several of the trainers listed had a good percentage of their ” total yearly starts” outside of New York. I can see Pletcher having 1,100 starts on the year, but they were not all in New York. You cannot, in good form use starts from all over the country and only quantify fatalities in one state. Meanwhile, some of your smaller barns had most, if not all, their starts in New York. This is a fair comparison only if you use the Big Guys’ New York starts – fatality rates. Were you to break it down that last step, I think you’d get a more accurate number.

  29. The thrust of my comment was not jockeys; rather the numerous bad decisions racing has made all based on greed has come together in a perfect storm (how I hate that hackneyed phrase). Drugs are evil No. 1 no doubt. Stop abusing these animals. My comment regarding only paying purse money through 4th, for you morons out there, trainers/owners are less likely to run an unsound horse when they know there will be no monies paid.

    1. I hear you loud and clear. I speak for the horses in a sport where money speaks the loudest. That’s a hard dynamic to overcome in a country where greed is now considered a good thing.

  30. Mark, I am a long time reader and follower since your early “Bartleby the Scrivener” novice days at Newsday, back when you so well articulated the import of how a horse was ridden both in a race, and also finished out after the wire. The Preach was a tough act to follow, but you immediately filled the void in so many ways. Maybe it was your sense of honesty conveyed, much like the passion voiced via John’s keyboard daily five cents tap tap tap. Kind of like taking over the helm after the legend of John Wooden out West in NCAA b-ball days. Any hoot, I love this sport and so admire most all involved in horse racing, but am so greatly saddened by the situation the sport finds itself in today. Greed is so, so, so destructive. The Devil himself today appears to have taken a personal residence within the “Highest Echeleons” of the world of thoroughbred racing. We can all evaluate the trainer numbers, and even cross document in graphic three dimensional charts. We can all evaluate a given situation, trend, or risk within a race, etc. At the end of the day however, our own individual sense of common sense becomes our own personal gyroscope, our own common sense of “Was the line of balance and fairness crossed?” Sport should, and must be fair. If not, why load thoroughbred runners in the gate at all? Call me naive, but in the case of Oscar B. years ago for example, we all knew what “porn” was when I saw it. Shifty Sheik almost taking down Slew of Gold? Seriously?
    It is so evident that the pattern continues even today as evidenced with much of the afterfact braggart “juicement” video commentary of today. I applaud your effort and the effort of others at HRI in your attempt to save our sport. I would so love for my grandchildren to be able to witness the …can’t find the word here to capture all of my enjoyment over the years….thinking of the words of the late Paul Moran about now and memories of Go for Wand….can’t wait for my grandchildren to witness the greatness of competition and fairness that I have been afforded. Two dollars to win on the Four please. Riders Up!

    (Sorry for the typo’s. Cold beer in hand. Horse number Four Two Pounds Over!

    1. McD-
      Thanks for remembering my early days at Newsday. I’ll let you in on the backstory.
      One winter at Aqueduct, Pricci and Moran were on vacation and I asked if I could write in John’s Sunday column space to keep racing in the spotlight, or as much of a spotlight that shone in winter at the Big A.
      I introduced and wrote about out-wells during that period and when Pricci returned I called the sports editor to see if I could keep writing the out-well column even though John was back to writing his Sunday piece. The editor, who himself was also just back from vacation, asked how it was going. I said last week I had a out-well that ran back an won and paid $199.20, Equalize. Without reservation, my editor said send me 250 (words) and my column lived with a flat-bet profit for about a decade after that. Unfortunately cut backs, especially in racing coverage was it’s demise.

  31. I was appalled by this piece. Unnecessary and rude “statistics” that never addressees horsemanship.

  32. Sue-
    Data doesn’t lie. Most trainers had no fatalities but some had multiple catastrophic injuries resulting in death.

    1. Teddy-
      I don’t have those stats, but The Jockey Club may. I’ll inquire and let you know.

  33. As a former owner who raced in the pre-drug era, I can say with conviction that the main problem is drugs. Some sixty years ago, I worked for John Nerud. A hall of fame trainer par excellence. As good as he was, he never won races at the astounding percentage that so many of today’s “miracle wonder boys” do.
    Lasix is a diuretic that dehydrates a horse. What else does it do that can be harmful to the animal? We do know that it can mask other drugs. If the powers that be choose to turn their heads, then horseracing is in deep trouble.

  34. Chuck-
    John Nerud was great. I used to sit and talk with him, mostly about pedigrees. He loved those Pharos and Phalaris lines. I don’t ever remember any of his horses breaking down.
    In fact, my research showed that most trainers have no fatalities, making the ones with multiple deaths all the more disturbing.

  35. What about late scratches? Don’t you think it is about time that a detailed reason verified by the veterinarian why a horse was a late scratch be given to the public? It is a mystery, and the rumors are all we have to go on. There does not seem to be any penalties for owners/trainers for attempting to “put one over” on the public and potential buyers in claiming races. If there were stiff penalties, they would not run an unsound horse.

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