The spotlight on horse-racing fatalities, which is chipping away at the sport’s long-term viability, has now shifted to New York’s signature summer meeting at Saratoga Race Course, where two more horses died over the weekend, bringing the toll to seven in less than a month.
Undefeated 3-year-old filly Maple Leaf Mel fell yards from the finish line on Saturday in the Grade 1 Test Stakes in a gruesome scene played out before a full house and nationally televised audience on Fox. Then on Sunday, Ever Summer, running in an allowance race, fell and sustained life-threatening injuries and was euthanized on the track.
Maple Leaf Mel struggled to get up and then moved about with a broken right front leg that dangled. The filly was also euthanized on the track. Jockey Joel Rosario was banged up and needed stitches to his lip. He was off his mounts the rest of Saturday and Sunday. Irad Ortiz Jr., who was riding Ever Summer, returned to racing Sunday.
There have been seven racing or training deaths at Saratoga since the meet opened July 13. Using a similar time frame, since 2019 there has only been one fatality each in 2019, 2021 and 2022. There were none to that date in 2020.
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For the full mid-July to Labor Day meeting, according to data provided by the New York Gaming Commission and curated by The Times, there were eight deaths in 2022, nine in 2021, 10 in 2020 and five in 2019. The Times excludes deaths due to colic, laminitis, neurological or other issues unless directly tied to racing or training.
The sport has been under fire this year after 12 horses died at Churchill Downs, sandwiched around the Kentucky Derby, and racing at the historic track was suspended and moved to Ellis Park, also in Kentucky. Belmont Park, fresh off having to cancel racing because of poor air quality, had horses die in the last race on Belmont Stakes day and the first race the next day.
Santa Anita was the catalyst for nationwide concern over horse racing deaths when 30 horses died in 2019 during its six-month meeting. In its first month of racing and training, 11 horses died. After the parent company, the Stronach Group, interceded, changed track management and instituted major safety reforms, the fatalities were greatly reduced. California deaths have decreased by 55% since 2019.
“Every horse entered to compete at Saratoga Race Course is required to undergo an extensive pre-race veterinary examination before the horse is permitted to race,” the New York Racing Assn. said in a statement Saturday. “In addition to physical inspection and observation, regulatory veterinarians perform a detailed review of each horse’s medical records, past performances and workouts. Maple Leaf Mel passed the required pre-race veterinary inspection in accordance with these well-established protocols.
“In the process of investigating this injury, a necropsy will be performed at Cornell University with the results to be analyzed by Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) officials, the New York State Equine Medical Director and NYRA leadership.”
Saratoga has an average to good safety record, according to the Equine Injury Database, an incomplete database on horse fatalities run by the Jockey Club. It presents only part of the picture as it does not record training deaths or those that fall in the “other” category. In addition, it does not require every track to make their results public. Churchill Downs and tracks owned by the parent company are conspicuous in their refusal to make its statistics public.
California and New York are the leaders in transparency when it comes to fatalities and injuries. Kentucky is at the other end of the spectrum.
Read more: Special Report: Statistics might not tell the whole story about horse racing deaths
In 2022, Saratoga averaged 0.62 fatalities for every 1,000 racing starts. Del Mar was slightly lower (0.56) and Santa Anita was almost the same (0.63) as Saratoga. In 2021, Del Mar easily had the lowest number (0.28), followed by Saratoga (0.93) and Santa Anita (1.45).
In the pandemic year of 2020, Del Mar (0.29) was the lowest, Santa Anita (1.17) was next and Saratoga (1.69) had the highest number of the three tracks. The year 2019 gives a horrific snapshot of what a bad year looks like as Santa Anita averaged 3.01 fatalities per 1,000 starts, while Del Mar (0.62) and Saratoga (1.28) were more in line of a normal year.
For comparison this year, Del Mar, which starts a week later than Saratoga, has had three fatalities, two in training and one racing.
Maple Leaf Mel was owned by former NFL coach Bill Parcells and named after her trainer, Melanie Giddings. The filly won her first five starts and had a bright future. Parcells’ August Dawn Farm had bought her as a 2-year-old for $150,000.
“She was my little traveling buddy,” Giddings told the NYRA press office Sunday. “It’s a sad day. It’s what she loved to do. She never looked worse than when she came in from two months at the farm. She just loved running and she loved being here at the track. That’s what she loved the most.”
The filly looked like the easy winner in the $500,000 race when she went down. Luckily, the jockeys were able to maneuver their way around the fallen Rosario.
“He was wrapping up to the wire, and I don’t know if she just took a bad step,” Giddings said.
The crowd grew silent at the sight and the Fox broadcast crew was somber. Host Laffit Pincay III skirted the obvious when he said they would update the condition of the horse when they knew. Yet, it was clear to everyone that there was only one possible outcome.
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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.