Racehorses are dying in staggering numbers at Pennsylvania tracks.
Since 2010, state racing officials have tallied more than 1,400 thoroughbred deaths. Half — 704 — died at Parx Racing, the Bensalem track that is part of Pennsylvania’s largest casino.
Most of those horses were put down following catastrophic injuries that happened during a race or in training. Others dropped dead in their stalls.
In 2019, 59 horses died at Parx, nearly twice the death count the year before.
Last year, when there were a third fewer races there due to the pandemic, the toll was still 39 dead horses.
“For some horsemen that’s the cost of doing business,” said Kathryn Papp, an equine veterinarian based near Harrisburg. “They still see horses as livestock, as commodities. But these are intelligent animals. They bond with their caretakers. People don’t realize how aware they are.”
Despite repeated efforts at reform, doping of horses remains a key reason why so many die in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. At a 2017 trial in a sweeping doping case, Stephanie Beattie, the former president of the Pennsylvania Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, said up to 98% of race horses — including her own — were illegally drugged to block pain and increase performance.
Doping, in a classic vicious cycle, has become ever more prevalent as owners and trainers conclude it’s the only way to stay competitive in a sport rife with drugs.
“It’s pharmaceutical warfare out there,” said Lee Midkiff, a part owner of Animal Kingdom when the stallion won the 2011 Kentucky Derby. Midkiff, who often raced horses at Parx, says he grew so disgusted about the drugs that he left the sport in 2017.
“It’s really bad,” Midkiff said. “You can get away with anything you want.”
“It’s pharmaceutical warfare out there.”
When Pennsylvania legalized casinos in 2004, politicians struck a trade-off under which millions of dollars in slot revenue would be diverted to subsidize horse-racing purses. That subsidy has amounted to almost $3 billion in the last decade alone, more money than the state has given to any other industry.
Now, many analysts argue that the bigger taxpayer-paid payouts have paradoxically made the sport more deadly, encouraging owners to put weak and injured horses onto the track for what turn out to be fatal runs.
While deaths climb, Pennsylvania’s oversight is flat or down. The number of regulators, their state budget, and the number of drug tests have been largely unchanged for years, while investigations and license suspensions have fallen sharply. Tom Chuckas, an industry veteran hired to oversee thoroughbred racing after passage of 2016 state racing-reform legislation, doesn’t talk to the media, his staff said.
Even if a horse is drug-free, the physics of a 1,200-pound athlete rocketing down the track at 40 mph creates an extraordinary stress on the animal’s fragile legs. The force, often combined with an unnoticed hairline fracture, can result in a break especially if an animal is drugged. So it doesn’t feel the pain as it races faster. And often, a broken leg is a death sentence.
That’s why some animals-right activists say the sport is irredeemable. These advocates simply want to end it, much as dog racing has disappeared in most of the United States.
What seems certain, though, is the industry is poised on the edge of major change.
In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf is once again proposing to divert $199 million a year from slot-financed purses to provide higher-education scholarships for 20,000 students in a state with a crushing college debt load and high tuitions. Racing leaders complain that the shift would kill the sport.
Wolf’s agriculture secretary, Russell Redding, whose agency oversees the state’s three thoroughbred and three harness tracks, is impatient with that lament.
“After a $3 billion investment, racing still isn’t stable. Why should we continue to invest?” he said in a recent interview. “If you want to lose public support, continue with the doping and the medication and the legal infractions.”
In Washington, Congress in December passed the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act to finally establish national safety rules and drug tests for horses. The measure, which has deeply divided the racing industry, is to take effect next year.
Stuart Janney III, chairman of the national Jockey Club, said the federal intervention “can’t come too soon.”
Redding said the state had tightened its racing oversight following the 2016 reform measure. Janney is skeptical.
“Pennsylvania for quite some time has done a very bad job in regulating our industry,” Janney said. “Pennsylvania is going to have to fit into a [national] regime that is a lot tougher in terms of medication and safety.”
In a statement, Parx Racing executives said the track was an active participant in the Mid-Atlantic Strategic Plan to Reduce Equine Fatalities, a 93-person group formed in 2019. Parx Casino and Racing does not own or train any of the horses at its track, it also noted. The operation is owned by Watche Manoukian, a multimillionaire based in London and California.
“When an unscrupulous owner or trainer is identified, or there is evidence of intentional or repeated use of illegal substances, Parx Racing promptly bans those individuals from either boarding or racing their horses at our track,” Parx said.
The sport has been hit in recent years with a pair of criminal cases that revealed much about Pennsylvania racing. The probe at Penn National that led to the 2017 trial in Harrisburg netted 10 convictions. Beattie, the trainer who once headed the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, assisted the FBI in its investigation, wearing a wire.
Beattie, who was not charged, told the jury that she had violated Pennsylvania’s medication rules on doping horses a “majority of the times,” amounting to thousands of violations.
In 2020, a separate federal investigation into a “widespread, corrupt” horse doping scheme led to the indictment in New York state of 28 people who raced mainly on the East Coast. Two — Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro — were among the top trainers in the profession and have raced hundreds of horses at Parx and Penn National near Harrisburg.
Those defendants pleaded not guilty. Their lawyers did not respond to requests for comment. The trial is pending, held up by the pandemic.
“What happened to the horses amounted to nothing less than abuse,” FBI supervisor William Sweeney said at a news conference. “They experienced cardiac issues, overexertion leading to leg fractures, increased risk of injury and in some cases death.”
More indictments are expected, said the Jockey Club’s Janney. His group took the unusual step of hiring a New York private detective agency, 5Stones Intelligence, to investigate its own sport.
The indictment alleged that Servis drugged all the horses under his control He’s also alleged to have tipped off Navarro to a track official nosing around his barn. In a wiretapped call, Navarro thanked Servis: ”[The official] would’ve caught our asses f--ing pumping and pumping … every f--ing horse [that] runs today.”
Servis was the trainer of Maximum Security, the colt that took first place and $10 million last year in the inaugural Saudi Cup in Riyadh.
Navarro trained XY Jet, a celebrated horse that earned $3 million during his career, including $1.5 million in another 2019 Dubai race. According to his indictment, Navarro, before that win, injected XY Jet with 50 shots of a performance-enhancing drug he called “monkey.”
Ten months later, XY Jet died during training, a victim of an apparent heart attack. Another trainer active at Parx, Marcos Zulueta, is accused of supplying “monkey” to Navarro from Pennsylvania.
In another intercepted call, a veterinarian, now also awaiting trial, tells Servis that he can use a drug without detection. “They don’t even have a test for it,” the vet told him. “There’s no test for it in America.”
“That’s an example of what’s wrong with racing in the U.S.,” said George Strawbridge of Chester County, a leading horse breeder, owner and longtime safety advocate.
“Those were leading trainers. And they’d train the Horses of the Year. And all of a sudden we discovered, ‘Aha, those Horses of the Year had chemical help.’ It’s awful. Really awful.”
Pennsylvania’s racing commission has suspended the licenses of Servis, Navarro, Zulueta and eight other defendants in the 2020 case who also held licenses to race in the Keystone State.
The state outright banned those convicted in the 2017 case, including three veterinarians and two trainers. One was a Cornell University-educated vet, Fernando Motta, who cooperated with prosecutors and confessed he had provided illegal drugs to trainers thousands of times at Penn National.
“That was the process,” he testified “That’s what everybody was expected to do.”
He testified to something else. He had continued to sell drugs to trainers just outside the gate of the Penn National track. Redding’s agency said that it had no power to prevent such sales but that state licensing officials are seeking to take Motta’s veterinary license.
State racing officials have suspended more than 1,800 licenses and handed out more than 4,500 fines in the last five years, disciplining some violators for using banned drugs. However, they said, none of the horses that died in the last two years were found to have been injected with illegal substances.
When horses die
When horses break down on the track, their agony is plain and gut-wrenching for spectators, jockeys, trainers, and owners.
“It’s horrible. It’s the last thing you want to see,” trainer Carlos Guerrero said. “You never get used to it.”
Guerrero, who has never been accused of doping, has had several horses suffer catastrophic injuries during his 30-year career.
One death that especially shook him was that of Linda Listen, a horse he trained that ran her last race on Oct. 6, 2019. The total prize money for her final race, at Parx, was $20,500.
Linda Listen’s owners got $500 simply for putting her in race. Even had she finished last, she would have won an additional $250.
“She looked good and was running normal,” Guerrero remembered. “If she had looked funky, I would have taken her out.”
After a strong start, Linda Listen slipped back to second place. She suddenly faltered in the final stretch.
“There was a sound like a gunshot,” said Anthony Nunez, an up-and-coming jockey, riding her. “It happened out of nowhere.”
That was the sound of her right front leg snapping.
“There was a sound like a gunshot. It happened out of nowhere.”
“I tried to stop as soon as possible and tried not to fall,” Nunez said. “The horse didn’t make any sound. Horses don’t make any noises like a scream.”
Nunez remained with Linda Listen as she hobbled on three legs. The small crowd went silent. The track ambulance arrived. The animal was “vanned off,” removed from the track, and taken to Guerrero’s barn. A veterinarian euthanized Linda Listen with the sedative Pentobarbital.
A big slots subsidy
If racing is to survive as a sport in the U.S., the veteran horseman Strawbridge said, the industry must find a way to police itself.
“It has to reform, or else the animal rights people will grow and grow and demand reform,” Strawbridge said. “Ultimately they could shut it all down like they did with greyhound racing.”
Florida voters voted to end dog racing in a referendum, and the last race there was Dec. 31. Only three states now have greyhound tracks.
Horse racing’s woes have grown deeper year after year. Attendance in Pennsylvania on race days is often anemic. Even before COVID-19, only a few hundred fans were showing up at some tracks. The three thoroughbred tracks left in the state are all racinos, linked to gambling houses. And their clients have long flocked to other wagers, most recently online sports betting.
In the deal-making that ushered in casino gambling, lawmakers cushioned the certain blow to horse racing by siphoning off the millions from slots into purses. The slots money keeps the industry afloat, paying for about 90% of all prizes and providing extra bonuses for Pennsylvania-bred horses.
Horses that run in Pennsylvania typically collect a participation sum of several hundred dollars. There are no rules about how frequently owners can run a horse. Good horses run once a month. Average horses run once every three weeks. Lower-level horses can run as often as every week.
Bottom-tier horses aren’t given time to recover from minor injuries, said equine veterinarians. Small hurts can explode into catastrophic breakdowns when not treated correctly.
While the industry says the slots revenue is vital, directly and indirectly supporting about 15,000 jobs, Wolf is contending the money would be better spent helping college students with scholarships. The political prospects for his plan are unclear.
After Wolf first proposed the diversion in 2020, COVID-19 took off, wiping out other government priorities. Wolf never even drafted a bill for his plan. His allies are hoping he can push the change through this year amid ever-dwindling support for racing.
Big prizes, lesser horses
Horse racing comes in two tiers. The top horses — say, up to 30% — live and compete in relative luxury. Some travel the world. They run in races with big payouts.
Lesser horses, including most that race in Pennsylvania, often run in what are called “claiming races.” In these, trainers and other licensees can buy any of the horses in a race for a set price before the starting pistol.
The concept of one price for all horses in a race helps ensure that those entered have roughly the same talent.
“You don’t want Secretariat running against cheap horses,” said Philadelphia lawyer Salvatore M. DeBunda, president of the horsemen’s group at Parx. “A Secretariat will win 100% of the time and discourage people from betting.“
But such races, Sal Sinatra, a former director of racing at Parx, said in a speech last year to the Jockey Club, have “created a business arena that is both detrimental to the horse and unsustainable to the owners.”
“You don’t want Secretariat running against cheap horses. A Secretariat will win 100% of the time and discourage people from betting.“
One big problem is that the purses, artificially fueled by slots money, have jumped, despite the decades-long decline in horse racing. In 2000, Sinatra said, the average claiming-race purse for thoroughbreds was $19,000. By 2019, the average had ballooned to $32,000, giving owners a huge incentive to run their weakest horses.
Fatalities rose “with the infusion of purse subsidies,” Sinatra noted. During 2006, the first year that racing was showered in slots money, the number of horse fatalities jumped from 80 to 109, a 36% increase.
The trend, Sinatra said, has led to the coinage of such tasteless phrases as, “Cut him in half and lose him,” and, “Squeeze one more race out of him.”
Sinatra didn’t return calls seeking comment for this article.
Even once-great horses can end up in these lowest tier races. “It’s all about the money. You have a wealthy owners that get a horse, it earns $1 million, then it’s dumped in a claiming race for a low-end trainer to run the snot out of the horse,” said Midkiff, the part owner of the Kentucky Derby winner. “Horses are discarded quickly.”
The life of a horse falls into a downward spiral as it cycles through the trading that comes with claiming races.
“You see them being claimed back and forth,” Papp, the vet, said. “That’s how they live the rest of their lives until they get hurt.”
Spurred in 2019 by a notorious surge in horse deaths at the major Santa Anita thoroughbred track near Los Angeles, the state of California overhauled its racing regulations.
The deaths had created a “crisis of perception, there’s no fancy way of saying it otherwise,” said Scott Chaney, executive director of the California Horse Racing Board.
“Animal welfare is a serious subject to Californians. We’ve been working on safety for some time,” he said. “But the cluster of fatal injuries in 2019, about 30 in six months, really accelerated all of the efforts.”
The state began requiring tracks to install MRI machines to examine horses before each race for preexisting injuries that weren’t visible, he said. That is not done in Pennsylvania. In all, California imposed a host of new safety initiatives, driving down fatalities by about a quarter, he said.
Still, the number of deaths could be much lower, advocates say. In Europe, where doping is rare, fatalities are a fraction of what they are in the U.S. Strawbridge and some others attribute that to more rigorous drug testing and harsher punishment of cheaters.
In Pennsylvania, deaths of horses at Parx — in races, in training, and in stalls — have been on a roller coaster ride. In 2011, the rate hit a high of 7.8 per 1,000 starts. After falling back, it nearly doubled in 2019 from the year before, climbing to 4.9. The death rates at Penn National and the Presque Isle Downs & Casino near Erie are lower.
Fatalities at Pennsylvania’s three harness tracks occur at far lower rates than among thoroughbreds. Experts say harness horses are sturdier and slower.
At Parx, “Our goal is to have zero deaths,” said DeBunda. “We had a problem and we’ve addressed it and we’re making progress.”
DeBunda said awards for last-place finishes at Parx have been reduced to discourage the entry of unfit horses. When weather seems unsafe for racing, jockeys can refuse to compete and trainers can withdraw their entries without penalties.
He added: “I believe that for the most part that racing the horses is almost as safe as not racing them. I have no proof other than that I’ve had two horses put down on the farm and only one racing.”
Animal-welfare activists say death is inevitable.
“The killing is built into the system.”
“The killing is built into the system,” said Patrick Battuello, the New York state-based operator of a website called HorseRacingWrongs.org.
Battuello is leading a push to end racing, pressuring legislatures across the country with letter-writing campaigns and protests outside tracks.
More oversight and enforcement are pending, notably from the Integrity Act passed by Congress. The law mandates that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, the nonprofit that oversees drug testing for U.S. Olympics athletes, will also begin testing horses nationwide.
The new law had bipartisan backing in Congress, but received tepid support from many in the racing business.
DeBunda’s group of owners and trainers, the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, says it is concerned that the law might lead to new taxes on the industry.
Others are more hostile.
This month, the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association — and the group’s affiliate at Penn National — signed on to a new federal lawsuit seeking to kill the act. The suit says it unconstitutionally grants too much power to the new authority, a nongovernment entity.
Horse-racing commentator Bill Finley, writing recently in the Thoroughbred Daily News, said the lawsuit made “absolutely no sense.”
“It’s like Citibank suing for more lenient penalties for bank robbers,” Finley wrote. “Armed with syringes, the bad guys have been stealing money from the good guys. Lots of it.”
Redding, the Pennsylvania agriculture secretary, thinks the new federal role is critical.
“It will be transformative,” he said. “One of the challenges every state has had has been the lack of national standards established independent of each jurisdiction or trade group. We’ll have oversight for the safety of riders and horses and oversight of the medication and use and enforcement of that. It’s a good thing.”
Monti Neal Sims, a Pennsylvania trainer, said unless far-reaching reform takes root, especially a crackdown on doping, the deaths will continue until horse racing disappears.
“There needs to be a lot of changes. And the horsemen don’t want to change. They’re scared for their livelihoods,” Sims said. “They’re thinking, ‘If I can’t use the medication, how will I win races?’ But without changes it will become like dog racing — there won’t be any.”
Strawbridge, the veteran owner and breeder, agreed:
“You can’t persist in a sport if most of the world regards it as cruel.”
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This story has been updated from its original posting to reflect that the Saudi Cup was in Riyadh and that Lee Midkiff was a part owner of Animal Kingdom.