Every year, horse racing as an industry does what it can to make itself safer than ever before. There will, sadly, always be a risk involved, as with any elite sport involving animals.
The British Horseracing Authority works hard to minimise that risk, with the number of runners that have died decreasing by one-third over the past 20 years. The rate at which horses die as a direct result of taking part in races stands at about 0.21% of all of the runners. Still, the BHA looks to improve that statistic as much as possible and every death is a tragedy.
The question is, does racing on hard ground make it more likely that horses will die? It is obviously very difficult to find out exact information on horse fatalities based on the Going, but it is at least something that we can look for anecdotal evidence about. What we do know is in recent times races have been cancelled, especially longer gruelling cross-country races, when the ground has been to hard. That shows that the industry is actively trying to reduce risks to horses, although it will never be perfect.
There are all sorts of things that can contribute to the tragedy of a horse’s death, including the likes of whether they take part in jump racing or flat racing. Yet the ground that the race is taking place on will often be one of the key contributing factors. Is there anything that can be done about it?
What The Stats Show
|Going||Number Of Deaths|
|Good to Firm||308|
|Good to Soft||457|
|Standard to Slow||99|
The reality is that it isn’t necessarily all that easy to assess how important the Going is when it comes to the deaths of horses. The website Horse Death Watch keeps a record of all horse fatalities, offering the chance to separate them out according to the Going. The table above shows the information that the group has in terms of deaths between 2007 and 2022.
Whilst that tells us quite a bit, what we don’t know is the number of races that had each type of Going during the period of time that we’re looking at. It is obviously that 1,019 deaths is a huge amount, but if the Going was Good in 100,000 races then that is ‘better’ than if it was only Good in 2,000 races.
We also don’t know how many horses took place in each race, so the information isn’t perfect when it comes to figuring out how bad firm ground is when it comes to horse deaths. It is also tricky to know how hard Firm or Good to Firm is.
Reasons For Deaths
|Horse||Date||Reason For Death|
|Steel An Icon||12/09/2021||Pulled up injured|
|Paraphenalia||28/07/2018||Broke foreleg pastern|
|Sarabi||14/06/2018||Finished race lame|
|Knocklayde Express||22/03/2015||Fatally injured|
|Call Box||02/07/2014||Collapsed & died after race|
|Branston De Soto||01/07/2014||Injured, destroyed|
|K Lightning||14/06/2014||Broke foreleg pastern|
|Imperial Djay||25/05/2013||Injured, destroyed|
|Ripalong Lad||05/11/2011||Collapsed & died after race|
|Pseudonym||13/09/2009||Pulled up lame|
|Trevian||22/08/2009||Pulled up injured|
|Border Artist||12/05/2009||Slipped up|
|Madison Heights||15/08/2008||Severed tendon|
|Ashbys Dance||19/06/2008||Pulled up lame|
|North Fleet||11/11/2007||Fatally injured|
|Memphis Kate||20/09/2007||Pulled up injured|
|Palais Tiff||10/08/2007||Pulled up, collapsed & died|
|Private Peachey||09/08/2007||Pulled up, shattered hock & destroyed|
The other thing that Horse Death Watch does is gives you information about the death of the horse. Why did it happen? Obviously we won’t look at all of the horses, but we will look specifically at the ones that died on Firm Going as those are the deaths that are most relevant to what we’re looking at, shown in the table above.
In the majority of cases, the horses were destroyed as a result of the injures that they suffered. With horses, certain injuries are all but impossible for them to recover from and it is the humane thing to then destroy them. What it is difficult to ascertain from the injuries is whether they were caused specifically because of the Going. This is made especially difficult to know because we don’t know whether the injury was suffered in a flat or jump race.
|Going||Number Of Deaths||Number Of Starts||Incidents Per 1,000 Starts|
|Hard to Firm||24||29,002||0.83|
|Good to Firm||172||217,424||0.79|
|Good to Soft||41||76,665||0.53|
|Soft or Heavy||38||72,969||0.52|
Thanks to research carried out on races in Great Britain between 2000 and 2013, we can learn a little more about flat racing. The deaths here are on the race day itself, unlike with Horse Death Watch’s information, which includes deaths up to 48 hours after the end of the race.
The table above shows what we know about the deaths according to the Going, including the number of runners that took part in the racing, making it more complete in terms of information.
We can surmise from that information that the cases of deaths of horses in flat racing it at its relative highest when the ground is firmer. Indeed, as the ground softens, the number of deaths per 1,000 starts drops off, even when the number of starters remains more than double the number of starters when the Going is Hard to Firm.
Synthetic Tracks See Fewer Deaths
Synthetic tracks are, in many ways, ideal for horse racing. The Going can be decided upon artificially, whilst the surface is much kinder to horses than either dirt or grass. The issue, especially in the United Kingdom, is that jump racing can’t take place on All-Weather tracks because they are harder for the horse’s landing.
It is the same reason that jump racing doesn’t take place in the summer, given that the firmer ground is tougher on horses. That is, in itself, anecdotal evidence that firmer ground is likely to lead to more equine fatalities.
In the United States of America, the Equine Injury Database was launched in July 2008. The stats show that synthetic tracks result in fewer deaths, with the surface seeing fewer deaths than dirt tracks every year between 2008 and 2018, whilst also being better than turf tracks in eight of those ten years.
Fatalities on synthetic tracks occur at a rate of 1.2 in every 1,000 starts, compared to 1.47 on turf tracks and 1.97 on the dirt. Of course, there are factors that aren’t included in that, such as turf tracks hosting jump racing, which is naturally more dangerous, but it’s still interesting.
Jump Racing Is Complicated
The reality of jump racing is such that there are many moving parts that can contribute to a horse’s fatality. More horses die when taking part in jump racing than flat racing, which is a fact that is borne out by the stats.
In 2019, for example, 60,514 horses took place in flat races, with 35 of them dying. That is a rate of 0.06%, which is still tragic, but more palatable. In jump racing, 138 horses died from 31,423 starters at a rate of 4.4 per 1,000 starts or 0.44% of all participants. That is an alarming number, showing that a jump race is seven times more likely to result in a death than flat racing.
Jump racing shouldn’t take place on hard ground. That is why jump racing takes place in the winter, when the turf is much more likely to be soft and races are cancelled if there has been a particularly strong frost.
It is what the stats on flat racing from 2000 to 2013 are so revealing, as is the idea that there are fewer deaths on synthetic tracks. It obviously isn’t proof that running on hard tracks is less dangerous than running on softer tracks, but it is indicative of an inherent danger in racing that is perhaps ignored by the authorities.
What We Can Learn From Santa Anita
The Californian track of Santa Anita is based in the shadow of the San Gabriel mountains. For American racing fans, it will always hold a special place in their heart. Famous victories have been won by horses like Seabiscuit, whilst celebrities such as Errol Flynn and Bing Crosby were once known to have cheered from the stands there. In March of 2019, however, the racecourse closed its doors and suspended racing indefinitely following the deaths of 21 horses across a two-month period, with training also suspended.
The horses died between Boxing Day 2018 and mid-March, which was the winter-spring racing period in the United States. The interesting thing is that the track at the course is a dirt one, which stats on the Equine Injury Database in the US told us was the most dangerous surface type for races to take place on. That could easily lead you to believe that the track type, combined with the weather, was making for a harder surface for the races to take place, which we now know is a terrible combination of things.
However, there were reports from trainers at Santa Anita that they were pressured to run their horses even when they felt uncomfortable doing so. There was also a suggestion that horses in California were worked out far more regularly than in any other of the US states. The track came under intense pressure in the weeks that followed the suspension of racing, with the entire industry of horse racing in America also faced a focus that it hadn’t suffered before. The reality is that a number of factors will contribute to a fatality.
According to the Equine Medical Director of the California Horse Racing Board at the time, Rick Arthur, as many as 85-90% of cases of catastrophic injuries were revealed to have a pre-existing condition at the site of the breakdown. In other words, a horse had already suffered a serious injury in the place that they injured leading to their dying or being destroyed but were run anyway. The decision was taken to close down Santa Anita in order to investigate what was happening that was leading to so many deaths, with good news being discovered when it re-opened.
Reforms were put in place at the track, resulting in 72 deaths of horses in the 2020-2021 season. That was down from 144 deaths in the 2018-2019 season and 278 deaths in 2011-2012. During the same time period, the number of horses racing only dropped by 7%, suggesting that it wasn’t just a smaller number of horses taking part in races that was resulting in fewer deaths. Greg Ferraro was appointed to the Horse Racing Board and said that one of the major changes was that of mentality, saying, “We’ve concentrated on the health and safety of the horses above everything else.”
Whilst the suggestion isn’t that a decision to simply focus on horse welfare will mean that firm ground is less dangerous, the idea is that shifting focus onto the welfare of the horses will ensure that the circumstances in which races take place will be better. This can include a decision to stop racing when the ground is too firm to be convinced that the horses will be safe if they run on it. More likely, though, would be the notion of not allowing horses to run if they have already suffered an injury in a specific place that will be difficult to protect.