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 OffTrackThoroughbreds.com, 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?
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.
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.