Brothers: Time To Face What's Right And What's Wrong With Racing - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Brothers: Time To Face What’s Right And What’s Wrong With Racing

Donna Barton Brothers

It's time for racing to stop apologizing for who we are. Dating back to the rash of breakdowns that occurred in Southern California during the winter/spring of 2018 -19 that sent a ripple effect throughout the industry, we have all worn a cloak of contrite sheepishness adorned with remorse.

Santa Anita and the Stronach Group led the way on major industry reforms and the industry as a whole has come a long way in a short period of time. We are still far from perfect.

In this article I will acknowledge the ways in which horse racing has improved by the things we're doing right. I'll then look at a couple of things we could simply be doing much better: what's wrong.

In a subsequent commentary I'll dive into the abysmal—things we have a long history of doing wrong. And, hopefully, impress upon readers the importance of cooperation. Let's begin with what's right.

What's Right with Racing

Fatality Rates

Catastrophic breakdowns are down—way down. A quick look at the Equine Injury Database (EID) reveals that the risk of fatal injury declined 7.8% from 2019 to 2020 and that it has declined 29.5% overall since 2009. The 2020 rate of fatal injury is the lowest number since the EID started collecting data in 2009. That's a pretty big deal.

Statistical Summary from 2009 to 2020 (Thoroughbred Flat Racing Only)

These stats indicate that in 2020, 99.86% of racing starts at the racetracks participating in the EID were completed without a fatality. In other words, a catastrophic breakdown happened 0.14% of the time—less than a quarter of 1%. That they are truly a rare occurrence, is one of the things that makes them so difficult to completely eliminate.

When something happens frequently the events surrounding each occurrence can be studied and measured in great detail. But because catastrophic breakdowns are actually rare events, it makes it more difficult to study them in great numbers and form reliable conclusions about their causality. And even so, horse racing has managed to reduce these occurrences by nearly 30% in 11 years. The veterinarians, researchers, horse trainers, track maintenance crews, and anyone else who had a hand in this massive reduction deserve congratulations.

We are not done and zero is our goal. While no equine discipline has yet to be able to achieve zero, we are aiming high to hit our mark. Ten years of data show that not only are we aware, not only are we trying, but we are actually finding success and doing a really, really good job at it.

The formation of the Horse Racing and Safety Authority (HISA) is another step in this positive direction. There are pros and cons, supporters and detractors, and there are sure to be ups and downs. But horse racing obviously needed a hand in getting its act together and the HISA has the potential to offer much more good than bad.


This is the only topic that will appear in both the “what's right” and “what's wrong” sections. (Full disclosure, I'm on the board of directors for the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA) and have been on the advisory board since its inception in 2012, so I have witnessed their exponential growth and impact over the past nine years.)

  1. The development of the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA) in 2012. Before the TAA there was no accreditation for aftercare facilities and there was little or no sharing of information and resources between these aftercare organizations. Transparency was hit or miss for potential buyers and adopters, and there was no required standard of care for individual organizations to maintain. Thanks to the work of the TAA, Thoroughbred racing now has a group of accredited aftercare organizations working together to support retired Thoroughbreds. The TAA now facilitates a monthly meeting where TAA accredited organizations get together on a largely attended Zoom call to share ideas and help each other, offering a constructive forum for each organization and for aftercare development.
  2. The evolution of a first exit from racing. Thanks to placement programs in California, New York, South Florida, and Maryland, there is a direct path for horses leaving the track to enter into a TAA accredited aftercare organization, and due to the success of this program, it continues to expand and influence. For example, while Pennsylvania has a program that does not work directly with the TAA, there are 1,200 Pennsylvania horses that have to date, gone to TAA accredited organizations.
  3. The New York Racing Association (NYRA) 1.5% Aftercare Assessment in claiming races that is due at the time of the claim, with 40% going to the TAA and 60% going to the New York Thoroughbred Horseman's Association (NYTHA) OTTB program Take the Lead.
  4. Inventory and tracking. Historically, where a horse ended up was anyone's guess. With an active post-racing sales scene (this is where show and pleasure trainers put a little training into an OTTB and then move it on – otherwise known as “flipping”) a horse may have changed ownership several times over the course of a couple years. As a part of the TAA program, the reporting of Thoroughbred Inventory to the TAA has allowed the TAA to trace more than 13,000 Thoroughbreds so far. These horses are given more oversight and future security than any horse ever offered in private sale.
  5. The visibility and development of new careers for Thoroughbreds. We have long known Thoroughbreds could be good sport horses in disciplines such as eventing and show jumping but it turns out that, owing to their versatility and huge hearts, they can excel in everything from trail riding to various English disciplines such as dressage, western disciplines such as barrel racing, equine assisted therapy programs, and everything in between.

What's Wrong  

Wagering Insecurity

Pat Cummings from the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation ( did such a masterful job of writing about what's wrong with racing—and, importantly, how to fix it—that, rather than opine with my own thoughts, I will refer you to his “Wagering Insecurity” series here.

Cummings covers everything from the problems surrounding illicit drug use, wagering insecurity, an eroding fan base, grey and illegal betting markets, and more.

In addition to identifying the challenges, Cummings also makes recommendations of how the industry can improve. Two of my favorites:

Recommendation #1: The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority may be our only hope—if they are willing to take up the challenge. Of course, we're already tasking them with the formation of uniform medication rules, uniform riding crop rules and infallible drug testing.

Recommendation #2: Reporting all test results—as in all test results. As things are now, aside from the general assumption that the winner will report to the detention barn for a post race test, we have no idea which horses have been tested—pre or post race. Here's the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation's recommendation:

“Every pre-race, post-race or out-of-competition sample should be reported publicly, soon after it is processed. The results should be reported regardless of the finding – most will be negative.”

I like it.

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I also love the recommendation for steward transparency and face-to-face discussions with jockeys and trainers. One of the stewards' reports used in the article showed that a horse racing at Lingfield Park in Great Britain had visibly bled and lost a shoe. U.S. bettors never get that type of information.

Another stewards' report from Hong Kong — on a horse named Golden Mission who turned in a very disappointing effort as the favorite — shows how much information is being given to the public elsewhere, and shows us, sadly, how little we're getting in America. The Hong Kong stewards' report was 135 words long. A US version, which really only comes from the Equibase chart callers, would simply say, “pulled up and walked off”.


I have long believed that the Jockey Club should charge $1,000 to register a foal with something like $800 of it going directly into aftercare. No, this will not solve the problem of funding aftercare but it may discourage people from breeding and registering Thoroughbreds who are unlikely, at best, to be productive at the racetrack. Right now the Jockey Club charges $225 to register a foal with $25 of this going to aftercare, and while I applaud their participation, I believe they can do more.

The Jockey Club seems to be concerned that if they charge a higher fee for aftercare at the point of registration, then the breeder/owner will believe they've paid into aftercare and they no longer need to contribute. This is a valid point. The latest research from the TAA indicates that, on average, it costs about $644/month to care for an off track Thoroughbred so the $800 in their bank account will not even cover two months room and board. Which is why everyone who participates in Thoroughbred horse racing must understand that funding aftercare is not a donation, it's our obligation.

Referring back to the NYRA 1.5% Aftercare Assessment fee that is charged for each horse purchased through the claim box, why is NYRA the only group of tracks doing this? Every racetrack in the United States and Canada should be doing the same thing. Buyers and sellers are assessed at auction. Breeders are assessed through the mare fee they pay to the Jockey Club (that goes to the TAA). But the people who are playing the game predominantly through claiming are paying nothing. Meanwhile it is the claiming horses who most often end up in need of an aftercare solution.

Aftercare also has a public relations problem. Many people think the problem is solved. It is not.

We talk about this a lot at the TAA. In the words of Stacie Clark, TAA Operations Consultant: “I now believe no amount of advertising or article writing seems to push the awareness button. In order for aftercare to succeed (and in turn help our industry and the image of our sport) we need commitment to awareness. In short, the discussion of aftercare has to matter more to the industry at large. It has to matter to everyone and it does not. There is a willful misconception that, because some aftercare is going on, it is enough. People are generally happy to want to believe that the horses leaving racing are going to be ok: out of sight out of mind.”

Again, the good news is that if the industry works together, we can solve these problems. In the next installment I'll get into the need for industry-wide cooperation.

Donna Barton Brothers is a retired jockey, award-winning sports analyst, author, and chief operating officer for Starlight and StarLadies Racing. She serves on the executive board of the TAA and TIF, and is on the advisory boards of Boys & Girls Haven and the University of Kentucky Research Department's Jockey and Equestrian Initiative. 

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