Are there more accidents and, if so, what is causing them?

A plethora of opinions from industry leaders.

by Murray Brown

There has been a great deal written about the perceived number of serious racetrack accidents this year.

In order for this type of discussion to have any credence, it would be necessary for us to know the facts. For these, I contacted T C Lane at USTA. In his normal expeditious manner, TC obliged.

I don’t have the exact numbers at hand. However to summarize, we haven’t had any more, likely fewer accidents this year over most years. In comparison to the ‘90s as an example, significantly less.

However, in terms of accidents causing bodily harm to drivers, there are just no numbers kept, so there is nothing to back my thoughts up.

I am still of the firm belief that more guys (I’m unaware of any gals) have been seriously hurt this year, with several of them being hospitalized than ever before in the numerous decades I’ve been involved in the sport.

I began speaking to people regarding what I felt was happening this past Sunday morning. No sooner did I open my mouth, than we had an accident that very same day in the second race at Harrah’s Chester. The next day I was blamed for it happening. In essence I was told, ‘Don’t tempt fate’ or as Mr. Simpson would sometimes say, ‘If it doesn’t smell, then don’t stir it.’

As would be expected, there were no universal conclusions. A few felt that there were no more and probably less serious accidents.

From those who felt that there were indeed more serious accidents, the number one causal factor cited was speed. The feeling was that we were racing our horses faster and for longer stretches of the mile than ever before. The time for giving a horse a “breather” during the course of a race was no more. Today’s horses and drivers are so good that with the majority of them, they are able to overcome what is asked. Except for occasionally the second quarter in a race, there are no breathers. Finishing second in blame were the bikes and the manner that the drivers sit in them.

I’ve asked a few people in the industry their views. There was nothing close to unanimity in what was expressed. Here are a few thoughts from a cross section of those in the industry.

Please bear in mind that when I write these columns, I generally submit a proof to the subject to correct any possible inaccuracies. Because of the time restraints and the number of people I spoke with, I wasn’t able to do that with this column. Any errors in communication are solely mine.

Michel Lachance

“In my opinion, there are not more accidents, probably fewer of them. However, those that we do have are probably more serious because of the speed that today’s horses are capable are going. We rid ourselves of the worst culprit that we had — the hubrail. I hate to think how dangerous racing would be if we still had those. The day that racetracks removed them made racing far safer for everyone in the game. There are probably many more reasons, including, but far from limited to, the speed of our horses. Back way back when, there were not a lot of horses that could go fast enough to get you seriously hurt. Our drivers today are so much better. Back when I began driving, there were a good many drivers, who were not what I would call “professionals”. Today, it’s very rare to find any at just about every track who are not. As great as youth is insofar as making drivers great, it can also have a negative effect in promoting reckless behavior on the track. You are a lot less brave and more judicious after you’ve hit the ground a few times than you are before that has happened. I was extremely lucky in all my years of driving in that I was never seriously injured. No particular reasons. I just consider myself to have been lucky.”

David Reid

“There are numerous reasons for the seriousness of accidents, not necessarily their frequency. I think the figures actually show that there are fewer of them, but when they do happen they can be more serious. Included in the factors are speed, number one, equipment (bikes), size of tracks, track conditions, the incredible ability of our horses and drivers and the soundness of horses, There are far fewer unsound horses racing today. But speed is the number one factor. I have been preaching for decades that the way to not only help avoid mishaps, but perhaps more importantly to improve our product would be to de-emphasize speed. I know it would be difficult, if not impossible, because the very history and the name of our breed is related to speed. The term ‘standardbred’ was derived from the need for a horse to be able to perform to a standard of speed. Most people might think that it would be impossible to implement. I disagree. It could be quite easy if the desire were there. My solution would be to dig up our tracks. If this were done, there would be less emphasis on going out of there like a bullet from a gun and maintaining your position on top. If we made our tracks softer and a little deeper, you’d see a whole lot more horses that left too fast fading and more coming from behind than you see now. It would become far more difficult for the horse on top to dictate the race. It would bring much more strategy into the way horses were raced. I also think that it would probably improve soundness, like the old maxim goes ‘speed kills.’ I’m not saying that speed is the only reason for unsoundness — far from it. But it is undoubtedly a large contributing factor.”

Blair Burgess

“I don’t necessarily believe that we have more wrecks today, but the ones we have can be more serious. Thank goodness we don’t have those dreaded hub rails any more. Because if we did, they would be far worse. I think there are numerous factors, including, but far from limited to speed. Just like with cars, some might be caused by aggressive driving gone amok, including loose lining and putting horses in dangerous situations. Sometimes too much concentration by the drivers on oneself and their own situation. It’s not just guys that don’t drive that much. Even the best drivers are capable of getting into trouble. Things can and do happen so very quickly out there. Its faster and tighter. I think that drivers position in the bike and where they have their hand holds are factors that should be considered. Perhaps there should be established standards for both. They definitely can cause delayed reaction time and visual concerns. The Meadowlands Pace this year was a classic example. Most of the drivers were late in reacting to a steppy horse. Then, they over reacted, just totally screwing up the race. The bikes are a problem. Even if they are comfortable and help horses go faster, they put drivers in an unsafe position, one not conducive to quick reaction time. They are made of steel. They don’t give and probably do more damage in wrecks. They also have catapulting capabilities. I hope that this doesn’t sound like an anti-driver speech. To the contrary. Today’s drivers are amazing. They are great professionals. They do the best they can with what they have. But it’s very competitive out there. Competition is a great thing. It’s the very essence of the sport. However sometimes enhancing the competitive aspects can lead to unforeseen consequences.”

Brett Pelling

“I don’t know the numbers, but it can seem as though there are more. If there are more, which I doubt, and more serious ones, probably, then the number one culprit is speed. This might sound crazy, but our horses might be too good. The breed was established for horses to go the set distance of one mile. They have probably progressed to the point where their abilities have exceeded that distance. That’s the main reason why we see so many start to finish winners today. If you have a horse that doesn’t possess high speed, it’s quite difficult, if not close to impossible to do well today. The days when you could get a good horse who was a grinder and could do well with it are close to over. They just go too fast in all parts of the mile today. The reason is not soundness. I think today’s horses, speaking in generalities are sounder than they have ever been. However speed once again comes into play. They are nevertheless still capable of getting tired, being constantly on their toes. Just like people, if you are tired, you sometimes get off your game. The same applies to horses. If one is tired, they can take a bad step. A bad step can lead to a wreck. Wrecks can be more dangerous and consequential because of the speed the horses are going. I think that next to speed, the biggest contributing factors are the bikes. There is absolutely no way that as good as today’s drivers are, and they are that, that they are not somewhat compromised by their seat in the bike with regard to their vision and reaction time. It’s something that needs to be considered. It not only creates a safety factor, but it also seriously makes it more difficult to win races unless you are in front or very close to the front. You have to make up significantly more ground than you used to before the advent of the longer bikes and lean back driving.”

Tony Alagna

“Speed has become a necessity. Unless you have the ability to leave the gate quickly, you are put into a bad position. The bikes and the lean back posture of the drivers are certainly contributing factors, not necessarily to safety but to the requirement of speed. Like the saying goes ‘speed kills.’ Just like when you are driving a car, the faster you go, the greater chances you have of getting into a wreck. If you get into a wreck in a car or with a horse the faster you were going would contribute to the amount of damage done. With respect to the bikes and the way they affect racing, it used to be that if you were in a race with 10 horses and were sitting 10th, you’d be 10th by 10 lengths. Today in the same situation, you are 10th by 17 lengths.”

Myron Bell and Charley Karp

These two watch more races than most and do so with an experienced eye. Both responded that they do not see that many accidents, especially at The Meadowlands where our best and brightest, both horses and drivers, hold sway. Bell said that he believed that the smaller tracks might play a role, with the same number of horses, but because of the greater space the longer bikes take up might not be conducive to the safest environment.

Jack Rice

Jack has spoken about the subject several times on Facebook, generally saying that there were just as many, if not more accidents previously, but they were just not reported to the degree they are now. I asked him for his views for publication.

“I feel it is the same this year as any other year. I think that you may be seeing more because of social media and the press. When I raced at Monticello, accidents were a regular occurrence. I do think, though, that some accidents are more significant now because drivers are leaning so far back that their vision is affected. I’ve seen horses 5-6 lengths behind fallen horses and still running into them. If they were more upright, I believe this might have been avoided. I blame the media for publicizing it at the better known tracks, but not the smaller ones. I also think the time of year and the weather might be a factor. It’s late in the year. Horses and people are generally speaking not as sharp and can be tired. Trainers are sometimes responsible for sending out some tired and perhaps not perfectly sound horses to maybe keep the training bill going. I think you might find this more at the smaller tracks than at the larger ones. I also think the track and state vets play a part in not scratching horses that seem off scoring down. Of course, some tracks now limit the scoring down, but that is another subject.”

John Butenschoen

“I race mostly at Pocono Downs, which together with The Red Mile might be the two best and safest racetracks in North America. Together with it being a great surface to race on, it is also one that is most speed favoring, quite possibly the most speed favoring racetrack in North America. Not that George and Anthony Napolitano are not great drivers, because they most certainly are. They can make speed like very few others can, certainly those racing regularly at any place other than The Meadowlands. If they get to the top with a horse that is comparable to those that they are in against, then chances are that you aren’t going to beat them. Unless you are especially hard on one at Pocono, they are going to get less tired there than at any other place that I’ve ever raced. What does this have to do with accidents you might ask? Probably a whole lot if you believe that speed is a factor in creating accidents. It’s my belief that the faster you go, the more likely you are to have accidents. Together with that, the speed at which an accident occurs will result in more harm. It’s simple Physics 101. What is the solution? As my friend David Reid said to me many years ago, ‘We need to dig up the racetracks and allow our horses to go slower and de-emphasize speed and make strategy more important.’ It will not only lead to fewer accidents, but also lessen the number of casualties resulting from them. It might also make our sport a trifle more interesting. What are the chances of that happening? My answer to that would be: Probably south of zero. I know I’m being too simplistic in blaming it all on speed. Of course there are other factors, including but not limited to the bikes and drivers positions in them.”

Active drivers

I’ve reached out to many of them. Perhaps understandably, they’ve either not gotten back to me or answered to the effect that they don’t believe that there are many more accidents (which the actual numbers confirm) or that they believe that the number of accidents involving drivers being hospitalized is probably just an aberration this year. A few did say that there are far more potential accidents that are avoided on a daily basis than ones that actually take place. We are truly fortunate that there are not more than those that we in fact see.

The author’s summary:

  1. The chief causal factor in accidents on the racetrack is speed. The faster the horses go, the greater the likelihood of there being an accident. Certainly if one does occur, following the laws of physics it should be more serious and potentially cause greater harm and damage than if it happens at a lesser speed.
  2. Second in line are the bikes, the way the drivers sit in them and the feeling that they have less control, a diminished view of what is transpiring and lessened reaction time.
  3. Other factors, such as loose lining by drivers, racetrack conditions, possible unsoundness issues with the horses, poor judges and track veterinarians.

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