By Tim Whyte
A horse reminded me of Dale Earnhardt the other day.
As I wrote last week, I’ve been a NASCAR fan since I was a kid. And when Earnhardt was killed in the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, the news hit me more than I would have thought.
I was coaching my then-6-year-old son’s “mini-mite” hockey team at the old Ice-o-Plex in North Hills. One of my co-coaches, a guy named Ben, was a NASCAR fan like me. Sometimes the kids’ games were scheduled against the NASCAR TV schedule, so Ben and I would swap notes on the races while we were watching the kids.
“Did you watch the race?” Ben asked while the kids were warming up.
“Not yet,” I replied. “Recorded it — gonna watch tonight. Why?”
“Just hope Dale Earnhardt is OK.”
I made a mental note that there was probably a wreck in the race. Motorsports are inherently dangerous.
I didn’t get around to watching the race until late that night, and I didn’t think too much of what Ben had said until the last lap, when Earnhardt, one of the larger-than-life legends of the sport, was involved in a crash that sent his Chevy nose-first into the wall.
It didn’t look like a horrible wreck, but the angle of the collision and the high speed conspired against the rugged man known as The Intimidator.
When my recording cut off shortly after the checkered flag, they were showing an ambulance taking Earnhardt to the hospital and a worried Darrell Waltrip was conflicted in the announcers’ booth over celebrating the fact that his brother Michael had just won the race, versus concern for his friend in the wrecked race car.
“I just hope Dale is OK. I guess he’s all right, isn’t he?” Darrell said, looking over toward the crash scene in turn 3.
“No, it couldn’t be…” I said to myself.
I tuned in to the 11 o’clock news and saw NASCAR President Mike Helton, choking up, say those words that changed the sport: “We’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.”
I actually woke up my wife to tell her. I was stunned.
It was devastating news for fans of the sport, even those who hadn’t been especially fond of Earnhardt.
NASCAR somberly went back to racing the following weekend, because that’s what they do. They race.
But the sport changed.
In response to Earnhardt’s death, new safety measures were put in place, ranging from the construction of the cars, to the helmets and head restraint devices for drivers, to the construction of the walls at race tracks, which are now designed to absorb some of the energy of impact.
This is where the horse comes in.
On Monday, a horse named Arms Runner became the 23rd horse to die at the famed Santa Anita race track in Arcadia just since Christmas. Arms Runner, like others before him, broke his leg and was euthanized.
The number of fatalities has drawn a lot of attention and prompted a monthlong shutdown of Santa Anita, in which everything from the racing surface to the drugs given to horses has been analyzed and scrutinized as a possible culprit for the fatalities.
It has been an unusual spike. But even in “normal” times, equine fatalities are part of horse racing.
How many is too many?
I don’t think of myself as a
PETA-style extremist, but I think we all should be able to agree that, yes, 23 fatalities at one track from Christmas to April is too many.
Imagine if 23 NASCAR drivers died in a single season. Or even a decade.
I don’t have a lot of expertise on the causes, so I’m not going to be so presumptuous as to put forth a specific solution. I understand from reading news stories about the rash of fatalities at Santa Anita that the drugs given to the horses can be something of a double-edged sword. They can protect the horse from one thing but expose it to another. Some of the anti-inflammatories are said to mask the effects of existing injuries, potentially exposing the horses to additional harm. And the drug Lasix, a diuretic, is controversially used to protect horses from exercise-induced bleeding, but has negative health impacts that are believed to increase horses’ vulnerability to injury.
And, there are questions about what would be the safest racing surface.
I’ve never paid a ton of attention to horse racing as a sport, other than the triple crown, which I admit I do find entertaining. I’ve also been to the horse races a few times — favorite track: Del Mar, by the sea just north of San Diego — and the pageantry and atmosphere coupled with the amazing speed and athleticism of the thoroughbreds makes it a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
But as I was looking for information on the spate of fatalities at Santa Anita, I stumbled across some stats from Del Mar that, frankly, surprised me:
Since 2009, Del Mar has averaged more than six fatalities per year, according to the Equine Injury Database on jockeyclub.com, with a high of 12 fatalities in 2016.
It’s not like no one in horse racing industry is taking the issue seriously. The Equine Injury Database was launched by The Jockey Club in July 2008, and seeks to provide information that can help reduce injuries and fatalities in horse racing.
According to the database, the number of fatal injuries per 1,000 race starts has actually declined across the sport, from 2.0 in 2009 to 1.68 in 2018.
That seems to indicate positive movement. But let’s put those numbers in human terms that I can relate with as a NASCAR fan:
The top series, NASCAR’s Monster Energy Cup, features 36 races per year with a maximum of 40 drivers per race. Let’s round that off to 1,400 starts.
If we were losing NASCAR drivers at a rate of 1.68 per 1,000 starts, there would be at least two driver fatalities every year — and that’s just in one of three national touring series, not to mention the regional racing circuits and short tracks across the country.
So, there’d be many dozens of drivers killer, every year. And what if we applied similar statistical comparisons to other sports, like football?
The public wouldn’t stand for it. I’d almost guarantee Congress would get involved.
Yet, if the 1.68 fatalities per 1,000 starts are horses, well, we shrug. I know we should place our highest value on human life, but… really?
And there’s this: Every time an adult race car driver, football player or any other human athlete buckles up, straps in and gets ready to compete, they do so voluntarily, with a level of understanding about the risks involved.
Horses, intelligent as they are, don’t have that benefit.
I’m not here to say the sport should be banned outright, and I honestly believe most of the people involved in horse racing — especially the likes of jockeys and trainers — do so because of their love for the beautiful, intelligent animals with whom they share the stables and the tracks.
And, honestly, until now I never really thought much about so many horses dying. I always knew in the back of my mind that it was possible and there have been some high-profile cases in which horses have had to be euthanized due to injuries.
But this. Santa Anita’s 2019 season, just one shy of two dozen fatalities — shouldn’t that be some kind of a wakeup call for the sport as a whole? I don’t profess to know the solution, but what’s happened at Santa Anita should serve as a call to action not just for Santa Anita, but for the sport in general.
When Dale Earnhardt died, NAS-CAR changed — and since then hasn’t lost a driver in its top national series.
This year, 23 horses have died at Santa Anita. Just that one track.
Horse racing must change, too.
Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal. His column appears Sundays. On Twitter: @TimWhyte.