Joe Drape: ‘They’re pure, magnificent creatures’

Joe Drape, New York Times

Joe Drape’s name, of late, has been synonymous with unsettling news coming out of the American horse racing industry.

In two recent front-page articles in the New York Times, Drape has coauthored stories describing horse deaths, incidents of race-day drugging, and a lack of effective oversight in the Sport of Kings.

In a Q&A with, the award-winning New York Times sportswriter answers questions about his ongoing series, and offers his opinion on how horse racing, a sport he has loved since he was a kid growing up in the Midwest, might be improved.

A race writer for some 15 years, Drape has fond memories of going to the track with his father, and later, of owning Quarter Horses and shares in Thoroughbreds.

At the end of the day, he says, the series of articles is being done on behalf of the horse, an animal that needs to be treated better.

“They’re pure, magnificent creatures,” he says, “and people care deeply about them.”

Q: Joe, you’ve recently taken a very hard look at the American horseracing industry.

In two recent front-page stories in the New York Times, you coauthored articles Mangled Horses, Maimed Jockeys, and Big Purses, Sore Horses, and Death, both of which shine a light on incidents of horse injury and death at American racetracks.

What was the impetus for these stories?

This was a story idea that I, and (three-time Pulitzer Prize winner) Walt Bogdanich, came up with about a year ago. We realized that a lot of horses were breaking down on the track, and we wanted to find out how many, and whether there were any common denominators.

Q: After six months of investigation, bringing the full resources of the New York Times to bear, what did you find out?

The bottom line is that 24 horses die a week on American racetracks. To me, that’s a lot of horses. That number is not a fudgy, or squishy number at all.

Q: How did you arrive at that number?

Enjoying the races. Photo by Julie June Stewart

Walt (Bogdanich) gets all the credit in the world for getting the reports of the “chart callers” from 150,000 races that took place in the US over the past three years, and by charting the numbers of incidents related to injuries.

Once we had the reports, we spent months in a lot of trial and error, determining which words would be correct to describe incidents taking place at the track. For example, we couldn’t use terms like “clipped heels” or “stumbled,” but we eventually settled on key words to describe incidents when a horse encountered a physical problem.

(Those words, according to the New York Times report on data analysis, were: “broke down, vanned off, injured, lame, euthanized, died, collapsed, bleeding, or went wrong.”)

Q: Out of the 24 horse deaths a week, how many were Thoroughbreds versus Quarter Horses?

Of those 24 horse deaths a week, Thoroughbreds account for 23.5 deaths.

Q: The first article, Mangled Horses, Maimed Jockeys, drew some criticism. An April 24th commentary by Mel Moser, published in the Paulick Report, reported that horse-death statistics were skewed because they lumped Quarter Horses among Thoroughbred deaths.

The most important thing to say is not one fact has been proven wrong in 12,000 words of writing on this topic. Nobody has disputed the number of dead horses.

The Thoroughbred Times tried to duplicate the science we used, and they arrived at a slightly different conclusion.

(The Thoroughbred Times reported that when they examined the number of incidents at the Saratoga Race Course, which has one of the best records, the incident rate dropped from 5.5, as reported by the Times, to 3.23).

My answer is one dead horse is too many. I’d say the number we arrived at is conservative. There are some horses that die during training, which would not appear in our analysis. Others are euthanized a week later. If euthanasia wasn’t done by a vet on the track, our analysis could not capture that incident.

Q: In the second series article, Big Purses, Sore Horses, and Death, the Times turns its lens on Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens. How did they get on your radar?

We had Aqueduct on our radar because 30 horses died since they opened a casino last year, and about another 70 were vanned off. Aqueduct is big time. It’s right here in the back yard.

Q: The Big Purses story correlates the rise in the Aqueduct death rate to the arrival of its casino. Please explain.

Joe Drape, center. Photo by Julie June Stewart

When the casino arrived, there was more funding for purse money. So, people started taking more chances for bigger money. Whereas in the past, they might let a horse rest, with more money at stake, they’re pushing them harder.

Casino money is just welfare for horsemen. They’re not getting better horses. Racetracks are still writing the majority of business on bottom-level horses, because those are the bulk of horses available.

Drape explained on Fresh Air this week that while casino money has fattened purses upwards of $40,000, that bigger purses have not enhanced the caliber of racehorses. The race for the big payoff is still, by and large, being run by the $4,000 horse. 

Q: What advice would you offer to improve the situation? What can be done, now, to make things better? 

There are a lot of good people trying to a lot of good things with racing, but right now, there’s no (universal) law and order.

The Jockey Club has come out and done as much as they can, but they don’t have the control. What we need is for states like Kentucky, New York, California and Florida to take the lead: they need to agree on rules and regulations.

Q: What rules would you suggest?

First, that there be no race-day medications allowed, period. In Europe, they have half the death rate, and they don’t allow steroids, painkillers or other race-day meds. Second, when you get caught breaking the rules, there should be meaningful penalties. You shouldn’t, for example, be allowed to serve a 15-day suspension, while your assistant races your horses.

In England, where racing is the Number 2 sport, they take half the year off, and they ban medication. We could mirror those two things immediately, by racing less and by addressing the medication issues.

Q: Wouldn’t a restriction of the number of races hurt the industry?

Suffolk (Downs) has done it up there, and so have Keeneland and Saratoga. They’ve done a good job. With fewer race days, you get good horses, and you get good racing.

Q: The New York Times drew some ire from readers who commented that the newspaper should focus its attention on other issues of the day, not American horse racing. How do you respond?

In 1999, Charismatic broke down in the Triple Crown, and it was a one-day story. In 2006, Barbaro happened at the dawn of the Internet culture. Every story I wrote on Barbaro went to the top of the best-read list. People love animals, and they love horses.  They’re pure, magnificent creatures and people care deeply about them.

Q: Are there any more stories coming out in this series?

My stock answer is yes, there are 22. Buy the paper everyday and look for them. But yes, there are a few more. We’ve developed some solid stories, and we’re trying to make a difference.

15 responses to “Joe Drape: ‘They’re pure, magnificent creatures’”

  1. Allison

    Fascinating story! Thank you, Joe and Susan, for your commitment to helping these creatures. I am also a journalist by trade, so I am very proud that both of you are leveraging your profession to tackle this topic with compassion and urgency.

  2. Paddy Head

    Well said. The racetrack is much like a family with its insular life. Every family has its blacksheep and law breakers but the majority are honest and hard working people. You don’t put an entire family behind bars because one son or daughter commits a crime. I too want to see the drugs and breakdowns eliminated but articles like Joe Drapes make it sound like there is no redemption. If this kind of publicity turns the public against racing the sport will die a quick death.
    Fellow racetrackers, let’s get the good stories out there to give a balanced view. And while we’re at it, let’s clean up the sport.

  3. BK

    Perhaps if the racing industry cleaned their own house it wouldn’t require the NYT to come in and do it for them. There are good, decent, hardworking folks that love their horses. Those people are not the people that are being written about. It is the bottom dwelling folks that racing should have bounced from their rolls long ago, but have chosen NOT to.

    That said, I would like to see a good piece come out from the NYT about the good trainers, vets, farriers, grooms, gate crews, hotwalkers that stay up all night with their horses, do the right thing by their horses, and who by and large SHOULD be the way that racing is run. Raise the bar folks, raise the bar.

  4. Nuala Galbari

    Mr. Drape:

    Thank you for your work to improve conditions and the treatment of racehorses, especially from those among us who have given homes to OTTBs. We know they are magnificent, gentle and sweet-natured, and give with all their hearts.
    Thank you for being their champion.

    With kind regards,

    Nuala Galbari

  5. Jo Anne Normile

    Thank you, Joe Drape and fellow writers, the NYT and Off-Track Thoroughbreds!

    Racing’s need to fix its drug addiction and abusive practices is not new. A 1973 Congressional report cited problems in racing including doping and poor enforcement. There were hearings on the Corrupt Horse Racing Practices Act in the early 1980’s. That bill would have banned doping. In 2008, there was the subcommittee hearing entitled: Breeding, Drugs and Breakdowns: The State of Thoroughbred Horseracing and the Welfare of the Thoroughbred Horse. On April 30 of this year, we again heard powerful testimony about the need for oversight of a 40 billion dollar GAMBLING industry that polices itself.

    The Interstate Horseracing Improvement Act of 2011 can begin to make change but will racing just do their decades old dance? More committees, alliances, studies, summits, conferences, meetings, symposiums and TA DA- now a web site– that are all just distractions and as ineffective as all of the other promises racing has been giving us since 1973.

    PLEASE MAKE SURE THAT DOES NOT HAPPEN. YOU AND ALL OF US CAN BE RESPONSIBLE FOR MAKING A CHANGE by reminding people to contact their legislators and ask them to support passage of The Interstate Horseracing Improvement Act of 2011 of Senator Tom Udall (NM) and Representative Ed Whitfield (KY) immediately. Let’s not have all your work and those horrendous deaths be in vain this time.

    By the way, your number of horses that die per week is more than conservative. Deaths at the cheap tracks would far outnumber those at Aqueduct and Saratoga but no one counts them. (Someone thought to compare Saratoga to Aqueduct??? How many Saratogas are in the country compared to cheap end of line tracks?) Your death stats do not count the youngsters that die during sales preps when asked to breeze at speeds they’d never be asked to do in a race. As indicated above, it does not count the morning training deaths yet we know how high that is: Susan Stover, DVM of UC Davis testified at the 2008 Congressional subcommittee hearing that 30% of the deaths in CA racing (they DO count reported morning training deaths) happen in morning training. Hmm, so add 30% of 23.5? As mentioned above, it does not count the horses that are euthanized days or weeks later after the drugs or joint injections wear off. It does not count the horses that limp into rescues that then have to be euthanized.

    I tried to get the Equine Injury Database to create a form for horse rescues’ veterinarians to fill out and send to them that euthanize these horses so they can be counted – didn’t happen. When I was with CANTER (founded it in 1997), we were intaking over 100 horses a year but euthanizing on average 30% yet we were providing $50,000 a year in surgery to repair injuries on those we could help so it was not just intake and euthanize.

    There are more uncounted dead horses in racing: Those that are too slow or are injured that limp onto the kill buyer trucks are just as dead. Thoroughbreds are the second highest breed sent to slaughter. In fact, a study I just co-authored using the USDA data and Jockey Club information on foals bred shows that for every 10 foals born, 7 OTHERS will die on a slaughterhouse floor.

    When a horse enters the starting gate, odds are that the finish line will be a slaughterhouse. Please don’t leave the track yet! There’s your next story!

  6. Lezlie

    “In 1999, Charismatic broke down in the Triple Crown, and it was a one-day story. In 2006, Barbaro happened at the dawn of the Internet culture. Every story I wrote on Barbaro went to the top of the best-read list. People love animals, and they love horses. They’re pure, magnificent creatures and people care deeply about them.”

    My take on this is horse racing is presently in real bad shape yet has never been a beloved as now. Look at all the horse stories that are being told on all the different platforms. Now is the time to clean house an reinvent ourselves.

  7. Lezlie

    Wow! Great interview!

  8. Sue M. Chapman

    Joe, you wouldn’t know which end to put the thermometer in.

    You have NO Credibility, despite working for what once was a reputable periodical.

    You want to rant about Dutrow? Well wake up and rant about this: Not all his positives! DUTROW DEFRAUDED THE RACING PUBLIC BY RUNNING BIG BROWN IN THE BELMONT. HE WAS PULLED UP. WAS THAT FAIR TO THE PUBLIC?

    Reach out: I worked in the NYRA Racing Department for 14 years. I also galloped horses for 25 years. You think you’re better informed that me?

    Someone needs to inform you that you are CLUELESS.

  9. Paddy Head

    I agree that racing must clean up their act and that 1 death a week is too many. I don’t think higher purses are the problem though. I rode at Suffolk Downs in the ’70’s. Bottom claiming back then was $1500 with a matching purse of $1500. For that price, even if the horse won, he was back 2 weeks later. Example, one of my mounts,Tim B Quiet. Tim held the track record for 1 mile 70 yards at Naragansett but was running for bottoms when I rode him. His lifetime record: 142 starts 33 wins total earnings $75,657. He deserved to run fewer races for more money.
    Your article is a wake up call to the industry and I sincerely hope trainers and owners take heed. At a meeting last week at Hastings Park in Vanc BC backside workers brainstormed on how the racing industry should look 5 years down the road. The need for new owners was raised but no one mentioned your article until I brought it up. I was disheartened when I heard the trainers claim that less than 10% used drugs. Like many trainers across NA, the Hastings crew are burying their heads in the sand. Keep rattling their cage, Joe, but make sure you also give credit where credit is due. Horseracing is not all rotten.

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