Increasing racehorse deaths put Arizona’s racing industry under the microscope

Racing horses have been dying at alarming rates in Arizona and now regulators are looking into what the problem is.
Updated: Jun. 23, 2022 at 6:00 AM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - An escalating number of fatalities among racehorses at an Arizona racetrack has many asking just what is killing the sport’s participants. The race season is a busy one at Turf Paradise in Phoenix, spanning from November to the end of May with several race days a week.

The racing industry involves young horses, some as young as two and three years old, getting injured and dying at alarming rates. Across the country, an average of 1.39 racehorses died per 1,000 race starts. In Arizona, that number was 2.54 per 1,000 starts. Our national investigative team, InvestigateTV, analyzed records from racing regulators in 29 of the 38 states with live racing and found that between 2017 and 2021, those 29 states have tallied at least 4,064 racehorse fatalities.

The Arizona Racing Commission, which has oversight of the industry at commercial tracks, said 54 horses died at commercial tracks in Arizona during the past racing season from June 1, 2021, to May 31, 2022. Forty-two of those deaths occurred at Turf Paradise in Phoenix. One of those deaths involved a horse named Creative Plan. The horse ran in the last race at Turf Paradise on January 7 and finished last. The horse was injured and, following the race, had to be put down at the track.

The rate of deaths at Turf Paradise has gotten the attention of the Arizona Racing Commission, which has discussed the death rate at several board meetings.

“We keep pulling stunts like this; we’re going I’m going to be out of business. We keep killing horses like this, we’re going to be out of business. And I have to ask myself, how did we get to this point?” Commissioner Rory Goree said. At the meeting, commissioners mentioned the last time they had a rise in deaths, they proposed adding another state veterinarian and a safety steward, but the legislature cut their budget. “Here we are still with the same problems we had in 2017, I’m. and the years before that, it’s Groundhog Day,” Goree said.

Vince Francia, the general manager of Turf Paradise, does not dispute the number of deaths at his track is unusually high. “It is high by the Jockey Club standard of starts per thousand. It’s a high number. How to explain it? I don’t think there’s anyone answer,” Francia said.

Francia says there are likely several causes of the injuries that led to the deaths but it does not appear they are related to the turf or the track surface. “This year, we had 18 horses suffer fatality during the 124-day meet,” Francia said. “Yet 7,435 horses raced safely. So that data is telling us it’s not the racetrack that’s the problem.”

The Turf Paradise track hosts horse races nearly every day during the season. The track is looking into whether the frequency of races may contribute to injuries. “It’s a valid question to ask, and we ask the question ourselves,” Francia said. “Is that too many days in regards to outing pressure on horses to race too often? So that’s one of the many things we’re looking at.” Francia said he is suggesting limiting how frequently a horse can race. “One of the new protocols I’m suggesting t the horseman’s group and to the state is that a minimum of 14 days between races,” Francia said. “Some of the things I noticed with horses that broke down.. that suffered a fatality last year is they raced once a week for three weeks.” Francia hopes to suggest changes ahead of the next racing season, which will start in Fall 2022.

In the meantime, a new federal law will take effect on July 1 addressing two issues -- track safety for horses and jockeys and anti-doping regulations. The anti-doping and medication regulations will go into effect in 2023.