Safety At A Cost - By Dan Liebman

(Originally published in the December 19, 2009 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)    

Suppose you chose a day and stationed survey takers at the entrance of every racetrack asking those who entered the grandstand three questions: Who is Rachel Alexandra? Explain the difference between an exacta and a quinella? What is the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Safety and Integrity Alliance?

What type of responses do you think would be received?

For one thing, the sample would be limited because, as we know, approximately 80% of all wagers today are placed off track. But, let’s assume for a moment either 100% is wagered on track, or we are also able to survey those at off-track sites as well as those wagering at home through advance deposit wagering systems.

One would expect a high response regarding Rachel Alexandra, considering the 3-year-old filly is undefeated this year, won a classic, defeated colts, and is one of the two Horse of the Year candidates.

Because we are asking those wagering on races, one would confidently assume most know the difference between an exacta and a quinella. If they don’t, then we truly welcome their handle.

One can only imagine the responses about the Safety and Integrity Alliance, though the name alone should provide a hint. But the best guess would be that few would know what the alliance is or its mission.

The alliance was born after the tragic breakdown of Eight Belles brought an avalanche of unwanted attention to the sport of Thoroughbred racing and breeding. But though unwanted, many saw it is a wake-up call that the industry needed to do considerably more in the areas for which the alliance was named.

To boil it down, a racetrack must first submit an application and later be inspected before it can be accredited by the alliance. To date, 13 racetracks have been accredited, and officials expect as many as 20 more could be by the end of 2010.

On Dec. 8 at the Arizona Symposium on Racing & Gaming, the independent monitor hired by the alliance, Tommy Thompson, released his initial report. Among the items he cited was the need to get additional racetracks to want to become accredited and to educate the public about the alliance’s functions.

“Racing fans need to buy into the alliance,” said Thompson, the former governor of Wisconsin and secretary of the United States Department of Health and Human Services.

Unfortunately, both getting more tracks to buy in and educating the public boil down to one thing, and that is money, which is in short supply today. The independent monitor’s report states there are “serious concerns that more resources are needed in the coming years,” and that an “upfront investment needs to be made by all stakeholders in Thoroughbred racing to the alliance.”

Wagering on races in the United States, for the first 11 months of the year, was down 10%, about $1.2 billion. Purses paid to owners and horsemen declined 5.8%, more than $60 million. Gross receipts at Thoroughbred auctions in North America are off more than $300 million, about 30%, after falling $250 million in 2008. Stud fees were decreased in 2009 and for all but a few hot horses have been cut (or remained stable) for 2010.

So, many racetracks are making less; most horsemen are winning less; sales companies, consignors, and breeders are selling less; and stallions farms have cut fees, so they will take in less in both 2010 and 2011.

The work of the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance is vital to the industry. Just like a track cannot open if its elevators, fire alarms, and concessions are not inspected, so too its facility should have to pass muster in regard to its starting gate, safety rail, drug testing, etc.

Though even passing every safety and integrity standard cannot ensure another accident such as Eight Belles’ will not happen, it shows that the proper steps were in place.

But finding the funding will not be easy in these tough economic times.


Leave a Comment:


Tracks sure need to buy into the Alliance but should we expect racing fans to do the same (as Thompson states)?  If you added a fourth question to your hypothetical survey and asked customers "What do you know about the elevator and concessions inspections at this track?"  you'd receive no replies because those inspections, like those of the alliance, are pretty far removed from the end-user's entertainment experience.  Customers don't care how the concessions were inspected, we basically just want the food to taste good. As for quality, most assume that if the food were unsafe, the concessions would have already been shut down.  It is folly to hope or expect racing fans to care about alliance minutiae.  They just need to have a general sense that the racing is fair and safe.  Fans are ultimately going to bet where they have fun and where they think they can be successful. The fact that track A is more meticulously inspected than track B is priority item #4,285 on their list.  

15 Dec 2009 3:37 PM

The Alliance faces a media that insists on promoting everything negative it can find about the sport.  The most generous pieces we get are the high fives over how many unwanted, unsound horses are retired to agencies that can't adopt them out.  Nothing changes, including media pushing social programs in every aspect of our lives, even for unwanted livestock.  

I'll help fund the Alliance.  When someone starts promoting reality of livestock use.  I'll put in my bit when the livestock organizations can all unite to buy up our own television ads to expose the propoganda to hurt animal related industries and destroy American livestock and pet breeding, jobs, ect.  Until then the Alliance is only as good as the media allows it to be.  And does anyone really think the casual fan will get the real story?  No, they'll get pieces on the lack of "after care" for horses done racing.  So now it's not good enough that NTRA keeps the horses safer on it's tracks.  Now the NTRA must take over the responsibilities of these horse's owners?  Maybe even make unwanted horses wanted?

Dr. Scollay's injury tracking data base has been under attack from the time it began.  Google For Inesperado and PETA.  These "poor horsie" activist groups and "shut racing down" memorial walls use grossly padded and manipulated statistics to feed to journalists like Joe Drape.  Saddle slip?  Slow horse?  Flipped over in the paddock?  Colic death in horse's stall?  Oh yeah, that qualifies as a breakdown!  As long as the press gives these self appointed animal guardians a chance, this is the news will get.  And they openly boast of all of their media contacts, from PETA's Animals In Entertainment director to William Rhoden's weak spot for ethnic inequality being related to the rights of lesser species.

Can the Alliance protect our racetrack vets?  Not allow them to be treated like criminals with horses hooked up to IV's everywhere you turn?  Will the media do pieces on the findings for racehorse illegal drug use actually being quite rare?  I have never seen the media run stories on all of the evil veterinarians serving the companion pet population.  Our racehorse vets the only ones with the bent for evil?

I hope that the racing industry media will highlight any successes from the Alliance.  Stop giving so much time to the horses outside of what should be any racetrack's jurisdiction- those done racing and their owner's personal responsibility.  Let's concentrate on keeping the horses safe on the actual track.  Instead of funding unwanted and even unsound horses, let's fund advertising the Alliance and outing the industry killing propoganda from the livestock worshipping cults that have bigger alliances than we do.            

15 Dec 2009 3:51 PM

The unfortunate reality is if the racing industry miraculously woke up to a solution surrounding safety and public scrutiny it would not signal reason to celebrate.  Nor would consensuses on things like meds versus hay and oaks, synthetic versus dirt, interstate standardization versus the current helter-skelter model.   Cooperation versus status quo along with progress in these and other critical areas would provide firm footing but, alone, wouldn’t be enough.  Racing needs fundamental reform in order to reverse a declining consumer demand curve.    

15 Dec 2009 10:06 PM

I have to say that I am surprised that a racetrack inspection system did not exist already.

In Great Britain, and to my knowledge all of the major European countries, racecourses are not permitted a license to race unless they pass an annual inspection by the British Horseracing Authority.  These inspections look at everything from the condition of the track to the veterinary facilities and accomodation for stable lads.

We also have the Racecourse Association which represents the interests of the racecourses and promotes racing as a whole.  

They also hand out awards to racecourses that meet particularly high standards of facilities etc.

Of course I am not trying to say everything is perfect in Europe, far from it believe me, but perhaps a something similar could be set up in the US?

I truly believe that until you have a nationwide governing body that deals with all registrations, rules & regulations, etc there will never be total harmony in the US racing industry.

Just a thought from an outsider :)

16 Dec 2009 5:06 AM

WOW! PETAmediapoison knows exactly what is happening in the USA today!!!

Being a dog breeder, and working to fight an onslaught of Animal Rights legislation, and losing, I might add, I have often stated, that the horse industry might be the only entity left to STOP the Peta madness!

The horse racing is the only group that has financial clout to fight this disease. And even then, the dog racing industry is starting to crumble, with Massachusetts being forced to shut down their track this coming year.

Yes, the ALLIANCE is a good idea, but needs to be at the forefront of fighting the Animal Rights groups, whose sole plan to end all use of animals. We now have a new czar in town, by the name of Cass Sustein, who is an advocate of animals being guardians. If he can get this guardianship idea to fly, our animals will be able to sue of, etc. The lawyers, of course, will be the group to really make out. But, horse racing would end.

Along with many other things.

Personally, I think the racing industry is doing a great job. Their logical interest in the horse's well-being is excellent - it must be, in order to win. A horse must be in excellent health, both in mind and body. The Alliance needs to focus on this insidious fight against the animal rights industry (which it is), and truly educate itself on what AR's want to see happen: END all ownership of animals, all breeding, all use of by man, including eating, fishing, etc.

The American Kennel Club (AKC) stood by, and placated this group for quite awhile, still does to some extent. Lesson learned: you can't placate animal rights organizations, particularly the PETA and Human Society of the United States (HSUS - and no, not an arm of the government, yet).

These groups make it known, that they want to end all ownership of animals, and believe me, they feel horse racing is abuse.

16 Dec 2009 8:41 AM

I realize your article was about the Safety and Integrity Alliance.

However, the part about confidently assuming that most people entering a track know the difference between an exacta and a quinella, and if not, then welcoming their handle, underlies a problem in racing that needs addressing.

In my opinion, if we ever want to expand the sport and its fan base, we owe it to ourselves to explain the difference between the exacta and quinella so they can become more intelligent bettors.

If we that understand the different wagers available do not take the time to explain (to those who do not) things like the difference between the exacta and quinella, or what an exacta box is, they may much more easily decide to invest in other, more simply understood, types of gaming, the result being a loss to all of us that care about the sport.

16 Dec 2009 11:36 AM

It continues to astound me that the vast resources of a combined horse industry (& I include those in the show horse world), dog world (including show and work dogs), and groups like FFA, and 4-H cannot be pooled for educational purposes.  In the last census and other data shows that close to 80% of people now live in an urban environment.  Why should you care?  This means that very few people have any practical animal knowledge.  They form their opinions from personal experience and what they see in the popular media.

20% or so of the bel curve are hard core animal rights folks with big mouths.  That leaves about 80% of the population to influence.  PETA and HSUS use graphic commercials (with tearjerking commetary by celebs), ads, and other means to beg for action.  We do nothing.  PETA is in our schools (as early as pre-K thru university) spreading horror stories of factory farming and yes, racing.  We do nothing.

Racing is looked at as the evil step child by all other horse sports (I know-I show horses AND am involved in racing-licensed trainer).  We do better drug testing and have more regulation than ANY OTHER sport, yet those outside of racing KNOW NOTHING of that structure.  WHY don't we work more on education?

It is really time to do some thinking.  The actions of less than 1% of our industry cannot be used to make opionions of the whole.  All I ask is this:  THINK, ACT RESPONSIBLY, and EDUCATE.

16 Dec 2009 1:14 PM

congrats to Dan Liebman for at least writing about the Safety Alliance, although should perhaps "safety" have its own little box on the Blood Horse website as possibly priority #1 for horse racing is to avoid another 8Belles, Barbaro, Go For Wand.  A Safety Alliance is necessary, but more so in actual fact then as the primarily "for show" org. as it exists within the NTRA.  Alex Waldrop and our sport journalists will be doing all a favor to continue to monitor the Safety Alliance, encourage participation in it by folks that actually understand (instead of speculate or carry on their "agendas"--see comments this post)breakdowns and injuries.  For myself, I'm unable to take the Safety Alliance seriously until they take up the gauntlet of the obvious, that breakdowns primarily revolve around trainer and training negligence and the need for pre-race diagnostics.  Until that happens, we sit back and wait for the next high-profile breakdown.

16 Dec 2009 1:19 PM
steve s

Dont need to worry about cost and safety with slots and poker.

I hear the NBA wants their slice of Gambling Dollar

16 Dec 2009 3:00 PM

I don't know if you are aware but the animal-rights lobbys have had a recent win in Australia with Racing Victoria announcing that Jumps racing is to cease in the state.

You can read more here:

There is an Australian jumps-trainer who writes a blog for the Racing Post.  He goes into more depth on how this ban came about here:

17 Dec 2009 8:00 AM

Dear Mr. Liebman,

Appreciate your informing us of some of Mr. Thompson's, the independent monitor's, concerns. It now appears that many racetracks either can't, or won't, comply with the Safety and Integrity Alliance's protocols, as limited as they may be. Racing tells Congress that Racing is capable of monitoring properly itself, but here we have ample evidence to the contrary. Congress tends to have short memories, and quickly occupies itself with other matters. I'm sure you won't agree, but it would seem reasonable if some among us would enlighten Congress of Racing's continued failure to right its many shortcomings. It becomes ever more clear that the federal government must intervene.    

17 Dec 2009 12:32 PM

I love the idea of the Alliance, but I don't see how these smaller tracks will be able to afford to spend the money to become accredited. With tracks cutting dates right and left, who has the extra cash to become accredited to an optional alliance?

18 Dec 2009 12:06 PM
Racing For Freedom

All tracks need to work together with the Alliance to keep this ever intrusive, ever controlling federal government out racing.  PS- The federal government has a superb record of failing with everything it touches.  Medicare anyone?

19 Dec 2009 12:04 PM

The federal government's past record may be far from perfect, but that's a far cry from deeming it "failing with everything it touches." Without its oversight and regulatory powers we'd be in a sorry state-product safety, drug safety, human rights, etc. etc....Private orgnizations such as PETA, etc. also are trying to do some good-this time for animals. Many in Racing disparage their efforts as well. From my perspective, Racing has a long record of inadequately providing for the horses' well-being. There are just too many self-serving/selfish motives out there. It's well past time for this all to be brought to light. I see no other choice but for federal government oversight... Carlsbad anyone?  

20 Dec 2009 1:54 PM

Oh, I forgot- Eight Belles' injury scenario was just an aberration-"never saw anything like it before" (Dr. Bramlege-protector of the species). Hmm- Carlsbad?

20 Dec 2009 1:58 PM
Golden Gate

Thank you pNewmarket for letting us know about the banned jump racing. This should really be a wake up call us. If it could happen there it sure could happen here.

What about having some sort of tax set aside say $1 per race across the entire country and set into a pool for all tracks and the money be used to make them all safer. It could be some sort of matching fund deal.

It is hard to close many tracks but if they fall one by one then what will be left are the big tracks and then their will be a more focused attack on them. Therefore these big tracks really need to help the smaller tracks not fail.

Also all of us that love the sport--the horses, the way of life the hard working track people want everyone to be as safe as possible..but as can be seen in the link pNewmarket gave us when someone doesn't know what they are dong they can actually make the sport more dangerous with their recommendations or spend lots of money not making it safer at all.

21 Dec 2009 7:38 AM
steve s

Goverment role is to make sure people dont make a profit off the horses.

22 Dec 2009 1:10 PM

To Steve s (and those that agree)-

The economics of racehorse ownership does a pretty good job of that already.

22 Dec 2009 6:43 PM

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


08 Jan 2010 1:52 AM

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