The number of horses deaths at Parx Racing in Bensalem continues unabated.
Thirty-one horses died at Parx during the first six months of the year, according to data released Tuesday by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.
That figure, if matched in the last half of 2021, would put Parx on pace to surpass the 59 horse fatalities that occurred at its facilities in 2019.
“This does not surprise me in the least,” said Patrick Battuello, an activist who runs the New York state-based website HorseRacingWrongs.org. “The killing is built into the system.”
“Drugs are part of the problem,” Battuello said, but “this is mainly about how horses are bred. They’re bred for speed with spindly legs and thin ankles. The thinner the legs, the bigger the torso, the faster they run.” And the easier they break down.
At a track such as Parx, horses will be owned by multiple owners, Battuello said. So any one owner has less incentive to be concerned about the animals’ health. “Reform is a ruse,” he added.
Representatives for Parx Racing and for the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association — the group of owners and trainers of horses that race at Parx — did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
In the past, executives have noted that Parx Casino and Racing does not own or train any of the horses at its track. And it promptly bans individuals when an unscrupulous owner or trainer is identified. Representatives of owners say they have every incentive to keep their horses healthy.
The horse racing industry is under heightened scrutiny as horse deaths at tracks have gained more publicity, and law enforcement officials have leveled allegations of doping against high-profile trainers.
Horse racing has also been among Pennsylvania’s most subsidized industries. Since 2004, the state has used slot machine revenue to subsidize horse racing at six tracks to the tune of about $3 billion.
“The billions of dollars provided to the horse racing industry have not reduced the number of horse death at tracks,” said Shannon Powers, a spokesperson for the agriculture department, which oversees racing. The state horse racing commission “is working diligently to encourage all involved in the industry to examine potential causes of fatalities with diligence and open minds.”
Powers also pointed to changes the commission has instituted since 2016, including out-of-competition testing of horses, more enforcement of medication violations, and “mandatory necropsies after every horse fatality.”
In Pennsylvania, the audience for racing has been dwindling for years. In 2018, attendance fell to about 580,000 admissions for all six racetracks in the state. That was a skid from more than 800,000 just four years earlier.
Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed shifting $199 million away from horse racing to pay for college assistance. The scholarship program would help 20,000 students graduate with less debt, Wolf said, by offering annual scholarships ranging up to $5,700 per student, depending on family household income.
But this would destroy the horse racing industry, responds the Pennsylvania Equine Coalition, which represents horse owners and breeders in the state.
Racing directly supports about 7,400 jobs, according to a 2018 report paid for by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. That report said about 8,000 more jobs are affected by the racing industry. That’s among a Pennsylvania workforce of about six million.
In March, an Inquirer report found that, since 2010, half of the more than 1,400 thoroughbred fatalities in the state have occurred at Parx.
“It’s pharmaceutical warfare out there,” Lee Midkiff, a part owner of Animal Kingdom when the stallion won the 2011 Kentucky Derby, told The Inquirer in March. Midkiff, who often raced horses at Parx, says he grew so disgusted about the drugs that he left the sport in 2017.
In May, state inspectors searched facilities at Parx and found what one top official described as a “significant amount of contraband,” such as medications, syringes and needles.
An agriculture department spokesperson confirmed then that an investigation was underway because of what was found. Powers did not provide further details Tuesday on the status of the investigation.
Of the 31 fatalities recorded at Parx through June, all but three were euthanized, records show.
The most common medical condition listed — for 26 of the horses that died — was “injury.” For two horses, the condition was listed as “unknown.” And among the remaining three fatalities, one condition was listed as “colic,” another as “illness,” and the third as “sudden death.”