Pennsylvania Tracks Show Little Interest in NTRA Safety Initiative
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Pennsylvania Tracks Show Little Interest
in NTRA Safety Initiative
June 2012 - Suzanne Bush

Safety on the job is a hallmark of many American businesses. Safety audits, employee training programs, operational changes that result in safer workplaces—these are workday routines that have become... well... routine. Workplace safety is a big deal for a number of reasons, presumably because employers care about the people who work for them and want them to be safe. But there are other factors that make safety a cherished principle of good management: on-the-job injuries are costly; companies that are not conscientious about safety can be held accountable for accidents and compelled to pay fines and huge settlements; workplaces that are chronically unsafe are public relations nightmares that suffer losses in sales as well as prestige.

Horseracing, despite its public face celebrating the beauty and athleticism of horses and jockeys, is at its core a business. Lately it is a business that has been knocked around a bit for its safety record.  A March 24 New York Times expose’ of the darker side of the industry revealed data that tell a shameful story of indifference and abuse that culminated in the deaths of 3,600 horses at state-regulated racetracks in 2011. Along with the deaths of horses, there were catastrophic injuries to jockeys and other horses.

The Times analyzed three years’ worth of data from 62 racetracks across the United States, and compiled a summary of incidents per 1,000 starts.  The average was 5.2 incidents (of breakdowns or injuries to jockeys or horses) per thousand starts. Pennsylvania’s three tracks—Philadelphia Park, Penn National and Presque Isle Downs—all fell below that average.

“We’re All Guilty”
The National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA) created a Safety and Integrity Alliance three years ago to address safety issues at racetracks. Mike Ziegler is executive director of the Safety and Integrity Alliance. He says that racetracks and the humans and horses that work at the tracks benefit from the protocols that the Alliance requires. “Off the top of my head, I can tell you the benefits that make it (joining the Alliance) a no-brainer. For starters, when the track looks at their operations—when they fill out the application--track operators have told me that they’ve learned stuff about their business that they didn’t know.” He says that the information and insights the inspection team provides are equivalent to hiring a consultant. “We show up with our inspection team with the knowledge we’ve gained inspecting 25 tracks and share best practices with them.”

Racetracks that sign on to the Alliance agree to:  provide pre-race vet checks for all horses; post-race vet inspections; submit post-mortem reports of all horses euthanized as a result of racing injuries; maintain a veterinarians’ list of all horses determined to be unfit to compete in a race. In addition they agree to eliminate toe grabs greater than 4 mm on front shoes, require safety helmets and vests for all riders and starters, and to provide an equine ambulance. 

Ziegler believes the aims of the Alliance represent the kind of strategic thinking that will ultimately change the shape of racing. The requirements for uniform reporting of drug testing results, injuries, disciplinary actions and for continuing education for trainers will result in better, safer racing.

Little Interest from PA
He says that there has been little interest in the Alliance among Pennsylvania racetracks. “The only interest has come through Mountaineer, and they’ve shown interest over the past few months and requested more information about getting their track in West Virginia and Presque Isle involved.”

Ziegler is unapologetic in his belief that safety should be a more pressing priority among track owners and horsemen. And he believes that the statistics in the Times article didn’t leave anyone in the industry off the hook—even those in states with below-average incidents per thousand starts. “We all looked like crap in that thing. It could very easily be any one of us, but we’re all guilty. We have work to do. A lot of people are fighting the good fight and doing the right thing. We’re just one bad story away from getting us called before Congress.”

Change in the Wind?
On May 17 a group of horsemen, casino executives and others met to begin talking about how to improve racing in Pennsylvania. Brian Sanfratello, President of Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association (PHBA) said that the meeting was the first for what he called the Safety Coalition. He said that it didn’t result in any policies. “It wasn’t to actually solve problems. The first meeting was just set to talk about what things we think might be important to work on.” He says that signing on to the NTRA’s Safety and Integrity Alliance would be a decision for the casino owners to make, since they are the owners of the racetracks.

“Pennsylvania is pretty much in the forefront as far as taking steps to help horses and jockeys. That’s something we’ve been doing over the past few years,” Sanfratello says. He referred specifically to the bans on anabolic steroids and other drugs.

An Industry-Wide Absence of Data
Imagine how successful the automotive industry would be if there were no reliable data available on the efficiency and performance of automatic transmissions. Imagine how popular cars would be if there were catastrophic breakdowns resulting in death or serious injury at the rate of 5.2 per thousand starts.

It’s axiomatic that better data lead to better outcomes, whether the industry is horseracing or the design and manufacture of cars. According to the New York Times, the industry had tried to address injuries and illegal drugging of horses by setting up databases so that individual racetracks could report injuries confidentially. The industry also promised to set up accreditation procedures for racetracks and laboratories, create uniform rules for punishing drug violators and encourage post-mortems on horses that died or had to be euthanized during racing or training. These strategies are all embedded in the NTRA’s Safety and Integrity Alliance. But the follow through on even these modest proposals has been mediocre.

The racing industry doesn’t manufacture products. It relies on the stamina, courage, reflexes and resilience of humans and horses. Neither the jockeys nor the horses are technically employees of the tracks where races are held. And race fans are not the ones directly injured when the industry fails. Yet, the industry will likely not make necessary changes unless and until those not directly involved press for change.