Horse Racing: America's Most Dangerous Game?
In 2008, a horse named Eight Belles collapsed with two broken ankles just after finishing second in the Kentucky Derby. She was euthanized directly on the track. After her death, the thoroughbred industry organized safety and drug testing committees to make the sport safer.
But industry practices continue to put both horses and riders in harm's way. On average, 24 horses a week die at racetracks in the United States. Many horses that break down run with injuries masked by injected painkillers.
New York Times reporters Walt Bogdanich and Joe Drape have conducted an in-depth, monthslong investigation looking at the American racing industry, which, they write, is "still mired in a culture of drugs and lax regulation and a fatal breakdown rate that remains far worse than in most of the world."
They report that since 2009, more than 6,600 horses have broken down or showed signs of injury. An additional 3,800 horses have tested positive for illegal drugs. That figure underestimates the problem because few horses are tested for substances. At least 3,600 horses have died either racing or training at state-regulated tracks.
To obtain these figures, Bogdanich and Drape purchased data from 150,000 races, then searched for keywords indicating that horses had been injured.
"We spent months collecting these data, double-checking it, weeding out possibly duplicates," Bogdanich tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "It was an extraordinarily difficult process, but we thought it was worth it. And, indeed, it revealed certain truths about racing that up until that point had not been publicly known."
Their key findings included learning that quarter horses that race shorter distances on tracks broke down, on average, about 29 percent more than racing thoroughbreds. Cheaper horses also broke down more often than more expensive ones.
"We then started to look at the relationship between the purse money and the values of the horse," says Bogdanich. "Basically, when you have a relatively cheap horse and a huge prize, the risk and reward gets out of balance. And if there's little risk and a huge reward, owners are going to take chances that they otherwise wouldn't do and end up putting rider and animal at risk."
Trainers who illegally inject injured horses full of painkillers so they can race are rarely fined or suspended. The pain medications can mask existing injuries, so the horses pass their pre-race inspection and run faster than they otherwise would. Other horses are injected with performance enhancing substances — ranging from cobra venom to blood doping agents — that cannot be detected by labs.
"There's a lot of these guys in the back stretch who, if somebody says this will make your horse run faster, they'll give it a shot," says Bogdanich.
Drape adds: "There's a fear among trainers that if their competitors are using something that may or may not work, [they then think] 'Well, I'm going to be at a disadvantage, so I'm going to use it, too.' And I think that's driving a good part of the use of these improper drugs."
Bogdanich and Drape also looked into how the addition of casino gambling at many tracks has made racing an even more dangerous sport. The addition of slots has meant that racetracks have started to increase their purse sizes, which has encouraged trainers to race horses that would otherwise be unfit.
"The horsemen are tempted to just act badly, to not take into consideration the health of their horse," says Bogdanich. "You can either turn out a horse for two weeks and let him heal on his own, or you can give him a few shots and run him back in seven days and maybe hit the board in third place and get enough money to pay for three more months in training. So those were the sort of choices that were offered by the expanded casino purses."
Cheaper horses were often the most vulnerable, Drape says, particularly when they were put in races for increasingly larger pots of money.
"When you have less expensive horses, it [still] costs money to feed them, to care for them, to shelter them," he says. "And there are unfortunately, we are told, some owners who say, 'Well, why do I want to spend all this money on a cheap horse? Let's throw him out there. He may win. He may not. And if he doesn't win and he breaks down, then it's not my problem anymore.' "
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. This is the time of year when horseracing captures the nation's attention with the running of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. But our guests, New York Times writers Joe Drape and Walt Bogdanich, say American tracks are increasingly scenes of ghastly accidents in which the horses are crippled, then euthanized, and jockeys sometimes suffer serious injuries.
Drape and Bogdanich report that too often, horses are running with injuries disguised by injected pain relievers or racing on performance-enhancing drugs. In a series of articles, they write that regulation of horse racing is lax, and the economics of the sport have been skewed by the addition of casinos to many racetracks.
Walt Bogdanich is an investigative reporter for the Times and the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes. Joe Drape is an award-winning sportswriter who's covered racing at the Times since 1998. They spoke to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies about the problems they've identified in the racing industry.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Well, Joe Drape, Walt Bogdanich, welcome to FRESH AIR. Joe Drape, do you want to describe one of the accidents that illustrates these problems?
JOE DRAPE: A little history on here: 1999, Charismatic is in the Triple Crown, running for a chance at history and breaks down in mid-stretch. The jockey, Chris Antley, holds his leg up - very dramatic. That, then, was a one-day story. I was on the beat then.
In 2008, we flash-forward to Eight Belles, who was the filly running in the Kentucky Derby, finishes the race, breaks both her legs right there at the end of it. That, I think, is where it pierced everybody's consciousness, that we've become sort of a culture and a community, an environment of people worried about the health and welfare of animals.
And when we went to go get the data, you know, I'd seen it on the racetrack, Walt had seen it on the racetrack, increasingly the public had seen it on the Triple Crown broadcasts - again, Barbaro in 2006.
So, I mean, we did want to quantify it, and we wanted to see how many and how often it actually happened. So those are the accidents, and the accidents are they snap their legs. We - Dr. Rick Arthur, the medical professional out in Santa Anita, said something that's very, I guess, moving me, is: How often do you see an Olympic athlete snap its leg off? We see it all the time in horse racing. So those were the accidents we wanted to try to explain.
DAVIES: One of the issues that you confront in doing the reporting here is that there are many different organizations, many different interests, kind of a patchwork of regulations. And to get a sense of it, you purchased these, what, 150,000 records. Explain exactly what these records were.
WALT BOGDANICH: These are records of races, descriptions of those races that are put together by what in the industry are known as chart callers. They're trained to use certain words to describe what happens to each horse in a race.
So what we did is we purchased more than 150,000 races, and we isolated key words that would indicate that a horse either broke down or showed signs of an injury. And that took quite a lot of doing. I mean, we spent months collecting this data, double-checking it, weeding out possibly duplicates - an extraordinarily difficult process, but we thought it was worth it.
And, indeed, it did, it revealed certain truths about racing that up until that point, you know, had not been publicly known.
DAVIES: And do you want to just summarize some of the key findings from that analysis?
BOGDANICH: Well, for instance that Quarter Horse races - horses who race shorter distances on the same tracks, regulated by the same state officials - that they were breaking down 29 percent more than thoroughbreds, for example. And we looked at cheaper horses and whether they in fact broke down more often than the more expensive horses, more valued horses. And, in fact, they were.
And we then started to look at the relationship between the purse money, the prizes, and the value of the horse. And that's an area that Joe can explain a little bit better than I can, but basically, when you have a relatively cheap horse and a huge prize, the risk and reward gets out of balance.
And if there's little risk and a huge reward, trainers and owners are going to take chances that they otherwise wouldn't do and end up putting rider and animal at risk.
DRAPE: The other thing we did is we brought in all the death certificates and necropsies for the 38 racing jurisdictions and tried to get a handle on how often horses died and how often they were tested and found positive for drugs. And I think the startling and noteworthy number there is 24-and-a-half horses a week, 24 horses a week die at the racetrack.
And that is a number that had never really been, I guess, found, discovered, quantified.
DAVIES: And then there's the jockeys. I mean, tell us about Jacky Martin.
BOGDANICH: Well, Jacky Martin is an incredible story, a national champion jockey who was at the top of his profession when, as often happens, people have too much money and sometimes lose their way. And he was suspended for four years. And he came back, really not expecting anyone to embrace him, but he was so good and such a - in many ways, despite his mistakes, an honorable, good man, that they gave him chances to come back.
And he immediately began winning again out in the Southwest, and then there was - I mean, to set the scene, our data showed that New Mexico was - had the worst safety record.
So I went out there to see for myself what was going on, and it was the sixth race that I attended. And I was at the rail when Jacky Martin's horse broke its leg and threw him head-first into the ground, and he nearly died, and nearly died a number of times afterwards. He's now paralyzed, on a respirator. And, you know, I mean, it's a shocking event to witness - even more shocking when, the next day, virtually the same thing happened. Just past the finish line, a horse threw its rider, broke a leg. This rider was more fortunate and walked away.
So, you know, that's the human dimension of this. I've heard a lot of people say that, well, jockeys have a choice. They decide to get involved in this obviously dangerous line of work. Horses don't have a choice. And so many people care more passionately about the horses. I care about both of them.
DAVIES: And what would a jockey like Jacky Martin be paid? What do jockeys make on races?
BOGDANICH: Jockeys typically get 10 percent of the purse. Jacky Martin was racing - before he was injured, critically injured, he was set to race in one of the richest races in the world, where it was more than a million-dollar purse. And he would have been extraordinarily well-compensated. He was on the favorite.
But he races horses, as he told us. And he says, this is what I do for a living. So he got on a cheaper horse and broke down and is paralyzed, hopefully not for life, but he is still on a respirator. And he earned, basically, 60 bucks for that race. It's the life of a jockey. They know what they're getting into.
They don't want to take unreasonable chances. And Jacky was one of the most respected Quarter Horse jockeys in the world. He'd won all kinds of titles, admired, respected by all people in the industry. And now he's lying in a bed, attached to a respirator.
It's tragic. Accidents happen. But among the people we've talked to in the veterinary community, there are steps that could be taken that might lessen the number of Jacky Martins out there.
DAVIES: And in typical kind of lower-purse races, I mean, you know, the run-of-the-mill races that you see in tracks around the country, so - jockeys are not making a lot of money on those races.
DRAPE: No. Jockeys do not make a lot of money. The leading guys, the guys we're going to watch in the Derby and the Triple Crown, they may earn $17 million in purses, which about 10 percent, they keep 1.7. Twenty-five percent goes to the agent. These are 20 guys, all right. There's 300 guys that are lucky to get $100,000 a year, $200,000 a year and take their money out of there.
So, you know, for every Jerry Bailey and Gary Stevens, there's 100 guys nobody's ever heard of that don't have insurance and are just eking out a living.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Walt Bogdanich and Joe Drape, both reporters for the New York Times who have done a series on problems in horse racing. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guests are Joe Drape and Walt Bogdanich. They've been investigating problems in the horse-racing industry and have written several articles in the New York Times. Now, at the heart of a lot of this is, you know, using medications to get horses onto the track that maybe shouldn't be running, and to also enhance their performances in ways that create risks.
What are some of the substances horses are injected with?
BOGDANICH: Well, we looked specifically at pain medicine, and there are many different kinds of pain medicine. And the reason we did that is because if you use it indiscriminately, if you use it on race day - which it is allowed, up to certain levels in the United States, that a horse can race on pain medicine - that what it does is it masks injuries, in some cases. And that can be dangerous because horses that cannot feel the pain are going to race in a way that they otherwise wouldn't, and that puts, again, animal and rider at risk.
So we were looking at pain medicine and the different kinds. Separately from that, there's a separate category of drugs called performance-enhancing drugs, which are illegal, and the industry often says, well, there aren't that many instances of illegal drugs, performance-enhancing drugs.
Well, in part, that's true, in part it's not true, because some performance-enhancing drugs cannot be detected by current testing methods. But we thought it was more important to look at the pain medicine because it's allowed, because it was an accepted part of racing in the United States, and because it is not an accepted part of racing in Europe.
And we thought that it was striking that the breakdown injury rates are quite different in Europe than they are in the United States.
DAVIES: So are there rules and regimens that govern, you know, the injection of medication into horses at tracks?
DRAPE: There are, Dave, but the problem is there's 38 different jurisdictions. There's no law and order anywhere. There is no uniform rules in America. Every state is different. They are state agencies. They don't have big budgets, and they don't have a lot of willpower to go do some things like this.
That's probably the biggest problem is no law and order. And when you look over at the rest of the world - Hong Kong, England, France, Australia, there's nationalized agencies with set rules, and their breakdown rates are half of what the U.S.'s are.
BOGDANICH: What struck me in reporting this story is how often stakeholders in the industry, the leaders of the industry, just about all, you know, segments of the industry, would privately say, well, you know, we wish there was uniformity in laws, uniformity in punishment. But until, you know, the next state does it, we're not going to do it, because we're going to be at a disadvantage, and racing is a struggling sport, and some would say a dying sport.
The old supporters are dying off, and there's many other options for people now to entertain their gambling hunger. So it's important to look at these sorts of things.
DRAPE: The economic ecosystem of horse racing is very much out of whack. Everybody has their own agenda and their own set of interests. Racetracks want full fields so they will attract betting money, and they take a percentage of that. Breeders want sounder horses, because they are taking them to auction, and they want to get the highest price.
Horsemen, trainers, owners, they want to run for high purses. So that's why they increasingly turn to the casino model. So what happens is you have four or five groups at odds with each other, and the only thing they can agree on is: Let's kind of keep it the same, because it's been working.
DAVIES: Now, when a horse is injected with a medication that will make it run through an injury and perhaps increase their risk of breaking down, does the jockey know?
BOGDANICH: The jockey knows that horses are receiving pain medication, but even the best of them have difficulty or are totally unable to detect that a horse has a problem, might be slightly injured, because they're not showing it when they warm up.
And it's also dangerous to be injecting these horses with pain medication before the track vet does a pre-race inspection of the horse, which is done for everyone's safety: safety of the horse, safety of the jockey, to make sure that the betters are protected. If they are examining a horse, and that horse is on pain medication, certain levels of pain medication, those injuries, that lameness will not show up.
And vets have told us time and time again that they wish the allowable levels of pain medicine were lower, because at current levels in many states, they are unable to truly evaluate the condition of the horse.
DRAPE: The thing that's been remarkable for me - I've covered this now for 15 years - is the jockeys will tell you there are certain horses and trainers they won't ride. They won't come out publicly with that because they're independent contractors, and they're afraid they're going to lose mounts, they're going to lose business if they say that aloud.
There were federal hearings last week, and they asked several jockeys to come forward. The only one who did was Gary Stevens, a retired hall-of-fame jockey. And he said something that I found fascinating and kind of gives you the insight in here, is he would get on a horse, and when he worried, he said it was a horse that he's probably ridden 10 times and was eight or nine years old, and it was like an old truck. He knew its gimp, its limp. It took a while to get warmed up. And then he would switch barns to another trainer, and all of a sudden he'd get on, and it was like being on a Porsche. And he said, you know, that's what his tipoff that something was given to this horse.
So there is an awareness among the jockey colony, but at the same time, there's a wariness to step forward and say something.
DAVIES: So as a group, it's in their interest to see less of this doping, but day-to-day, it's hard for them to do anything about it.
BOGDANICH: Well, that's correct. And we reported about one of the rare instances where jockeys got together and actually boycotted the horses of a particular owner in Pennsylvania. That's rare because, as Joe pointed out, these are independent contractors. You get a reputation for turning down mounts and being a quote-unquote "troublemaker," you're not going to have enough income to survive on the racing circuit.
DAVIES: Maybe you should just tell that story. This is Penn National, which is near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, right?
DRAPE: This is. And Penn National is a track that, you know, was sort of the forerunner to the casino era. They're a track that's really done that well, has built a casino, and they run basically year-round. And there was an owner named Michael Gill. And Michael Gill had won an Eclipse in 2005, which went to the most outstanding owner.
For four years in a row, he had more warnings than anybody in North America, and he also ran into trouble with regulators pretty much everywhere he went. And he ended up in Pennsylvania, in a farm and a training center there, because he couldn't get stalls at a lot of tracks.
Pennsylvania is right in the middle of the mid-Atlantic. He had access to three or four casino tracks. Casino tracks had purses four or five times, often, the worth of a horse. He was in the garden spot. And during 2009, 2010, he had a stretch where nine horses broke down in 10 races.
It all came to a head in January of 2010 after the third - I believe, within a week - did again break down. Jockeys were sent to the hospital. The jockeys had complained to the commission. There was a state police investigation underway. The track knew about it. Everybody knew about it, but nobody did anything. And that's what - the jockeys ended up having to step forward one night and said enough is enough, and we're not going to ride any race that a Gill horse is in. And that brought the heat down.
DAVIES: And when you say they knew about it, what they knew was that his horses were breaking down disproportionately. They didn't have evidence of doping, right?
DRAPE: They had investigative reports from a state police investigation that said - that had interviewed employees at his ranch. They had had a positive test on one of the earlier horses. They had caught one of his horses coming into the gate in October, the gates of the track in October, with the ingredients for an illegal concoction.
There was enough red flags up there. The track veterinarian, he had talked to police and said, yes, we had suspicions about him. A lot was known.
DAVIES: We don't have Mr. Gill here to give us his side of this. What happened in this case? Was there a sanction?
DRAPE: What happened was he basically left the business, sold all his horses. He claims - and he came out again last week, and we had talked to him several times - that it was not him, it was the track, that he was never at that training center very much. He didn't certainly instruct his employees to cheat, and he had nothing to do with it.
He is now suing the jockeys, as well as the state commission, for having his due process violated.
BOGDANICH: He basically said that - also, that there was - there were a lot of jealousies from his winning, and he was an outsider. And the locals didn't like him, and therefore ganged up on him. That's his position.
GROSS: We'll hear more of the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Joe Drape and Walt Bogdanich in the second half of the show. Their investigative series about the horse racing industry was published in the New York Times. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview about how practices in the horseracing industry are putting horses and jockeys at risk.
FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies spoke with Walt Bogdanich and Joe Drape about their New York Times series investigating the horseracing industry. They report that 24 horses die every week at racetracks. Many horses are running with injuries masked by pain relievers, or are racing on performance-enhancing drugs. Regulation is lax and the addition of casinos to many tracks has skewed the economics of the sport.
DAVIES: What kind of drug screening, if any, is done among horses at tracks?
BOGDANICH: Well, after the race the winner is tested, and generally, one other horse. But I found that, incredibly enough, that the budgets are so tight at some states that they take samples from these horses and they end up not testing them. In other words, if the trainers, if the owners taking the samples they're not going to want to get caught. So the sample that we looked at was really a small sample, small percentage of the horses that are actually tested. And they screen for gosh, any number of pain medications and other drugs. There's quite a long list of them. Some laboratories are better at it than others.
DRAPE: And Dave, there are test for EPO, for example, blood doping is one that has been suspected and there's plenty of evidence of, but that test is like $600 or $700 and most states won't take it because they won't - they cannot afford it. We've had regulators and vets tell us every time we find a test and it starts working they figure out a way to adjust or they move onto another drug. So it's really sort of a Whack-a-Mole-y game out there.
DAVIES: And there are some substances that simply can't be detected by testing in horses, right?
BOGDANICH: Correct. I mean something, for instance, like cobra venom. You'd say what on earth would a trainer be using cobra venom for. Well, what it does is it paralyzes that particular part of the leg and the horse cannot feel pain. Now unfortunately, according to the people we talked to who want a cleaner industry, cleaner more honest races, they do not have a test for that just yet.
And there are other drugs that they know, or strongly suspect are being used and they're told they're being used, but they have not yet been able to devise a test. And so that's a considerable concern to those in the veterinary community who really who care about horses and want to stop the abuse of those horses.
DRAPE: And there's also an aspect of experimental. I mean tests have come up positive from everything from Viagra to feed for pigs that somebody suspects has a steroidal affect that'll boost it up, cancer drugs, you know, there's a lot of these guys in the backstretch who, if somebody says this will make your horse run faster, they will give it a shot. And, you know, there's no test form and nobody really even knows if it works or not.
BOGDANICH: And there's a fear among trainers, that if their competitors are using something that may or may not work - well, you know, I might be at a disadvantage, so they're going to use it too if they can get away with it. And I think that's driving, you know, a good part of the use of these improper drugs.
DAVIES: You've written that the presence of slots casinos at racetracks have changed the economics of this. Let's just go over the basics here. The horseracing industry liked the idea of opening up slots at racetracks, because they would bring patrons and increase gambling. How has that affected the economics of races themselves?
DRAPE: Well, in the 90s the great belief was slot machines and casinos were going to prop up a dying, struggling game. And the way it was going to work is casino companies would want to break new frontier on the East Coast and the Midwest and bring their games and their slot machines to the public. And to do that, the horseracing industry was going to put a tax on them - 12 percent, 17 percent, it varied from state to state. And basically that went to purses and breeding programs. So, you know, this was new money, better horses with the expectation, we're going to run for more money. What eventually happened, and it happened quickly, was you basically had welfare for horsemen. You had anybody with a few horses, inexpensive horses could come, and let's say this horse was worth 4,000 on paper, all the sudden you could run for 20,000, you could run for 40,000. It was what Walt had said earlier, it encouraged bad behavior. The horse's life was not as worth as much as the plot.
DAVIES: Now with the casino money coming into the horse tracks did that mean that there were more races run?
DRAPE: Yes, because the state was benefiting, as well. They were taking a cut of the revenues from the casino and giving it to education, to give it to hospitals, to give it to county governments, so everybody wanted more, and more races, more race days, meant more revenues.
BOGDANICH: Yeah. What we had, as Joe pointed out, was a declining horse population, and yet there was a demand for races because there was a lot of money to be made. And so if you have a horse that might be tired a little bit or one that you would normally turn out and have it, you know grazed for while and get healthy on its own, with the lure of big casino money and big prizes, those horses are going to continue to race in cases where they otherwise would not. So what you had is a demand for races, but that wasn't enough product out there - high-quality product.
DAVIES: So the fact that the casino money comes into the track means that they are what, running more races and offering bigger purses and that's encouraging horse people to bring in animals that really aren't ready to run?
DRAPE: They're running for bigger purses and they're running - the horsemen are tempted to just act badly, to not take into consideration the health of their horse. You can either turn a horse out for two weeks and let 'em heal on its own or you can give 'em a few shots and run 'em back in seven days, and maybe hit the board in third place and get enough money to pay for three months of training. So if those were the sort of choices that were offered by the expanded casino purses.
BOGDANICH: Here's the problem, if you have these cheaper, less valuable horses and you own them and you had this incredibly big pot that's all of a sudden been super-sized, you might be more tempted to run that horse when you otherwise would not have done that. And as a result, we found in - at aqueduct(ph), that the fatality rate has doubled after the casino opened, and that was a great concern to everyone in the industry, and now there's discussions about how to deal with that.
DRAPE: And, in fact Governor Cuomo put a limit on the pots. They - now horses cannot run for twice their value.
DAVIES: And the logic there is if I'm a horse owner and I have a horse that's worth $8,000 but there is a $40,000 pot or purse, it's worth taking a chance, even if there is a risk that my horse will break down and I'll lose the horse..
BOGDANICH: Exactly. And now the rule is your $8,000 horse can only run for $16,000. So basically you balance his health and welfare with what you can make at the race track.
DAVIES: Now I've always thought that the top three finishers in a race won money - the win, place and show - they're now giving money for anyone who finishes? Is that right?
DRAPE: They now pay a greater amount of money down through last place. In some jurisdictions, West Virginia being one of them, they will pay all the way down to the eighth. And we found a couple in West Virginia who basically win at a five percent clip out of 200 horses, but make a good living by running horses that can beat by 30, 40 lengths, 15 lengths, that rarely compete but they are being paid down to last place. The one, in particular, was a horse named Star Plus that formally had been owned by the ambassador of Finland, Earle Mack, and they got this horse and they ran it. It got beat by 40 yards, 40 lengths, and they got $1,000 for it.
BOGDANICH: You have to understand too, that when you have less expensive horses that it cost money to keep them, to feed them, to care for them, to shelter them. And, you know, they are unfortunately - and we are told - you know, some owners and who say well, you know, why do I want to spend all this money on a cheap horse? Let's throw them out there. You know, he may win, he may not. And if he doesn't win, if he breaks down, well, then it's not my problem anymore.
DAVIES: What are the options for horses that can't really run competitively anymore? What happens to them?
DRAPE: Well, unfortunately, what we're finding, is more horses are being mistreated, sent to slaughter, going - passed like trash. I mean that's really the ultimate tragedy of it. The end of the line is nobody's taking care of them and these are the athletes, this is the sport, this is who we come out to see. But, you know, the rescue groups and the retirement groups who do tremendous work, and they are out there hustling, they're bursting at the seams. They just can't do anything more, they can't keep up with all the horses coming out of the system.
DAVIES: So what's the moral obligation of an owner who has a horse that it's really not the right thing to race competitively anymore? What should they do with them?
BOGDANICH: The horse gives everything of itself and the owner benefits from that. We would totally expect the owner, then, to pay back that horse by taking care of it. I mean, these are incredible animals and it's just unfathomable to me that there are owners out there who, after benefiting, and profiting and banking money from the efforts of their, as they call it equine athletes, that they would then turn their backs on these horses and, you know, get rid of them, turn them over to unsavory types who don't care for them or, in some cases, actually, you know, to slaughter. And while it is illegal to slaughter horses in this country, it is not in Canada or Mexico.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Walt Bogdanich and Joe Drape, both reporters for The New York Times, who have done a series on problems in horse racing. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Walt Bogdanich and Joe Drape, both reporters for The New York Times, who have done a lot of reporting on problems, recently, in the horse racing industry.
You write that some tracks are not accredited and don't seek accreditation. Is there any national regulation of tracks at all?
DRAPE: There's a National Thoroughbred Racing Association, which is sort of a trade group, and they have set up a health and integrity standard that they'd like all racetracks to meet. And basically it asks for best effort practices, including pre-race inspections, including testing. And what happens is, you pay a fee, they come look at you. When they first announced this they had pledges from 55 racetracks that they were going to do this. Here we are four years later, they only have 17 or 18 that have done that. And many of them, the casino tracks said no, we're not going to do it, because it costs money. At Penn National they weren't even doing pre-race inspections until this past October. To meet these standards is going to cost money and investment, so there is no, really, accreditation to speak of.
DAVIES: And then what about state regulators, do some doing decent job?
BOGDANICH: Well, if varies from state to state. Let's take New Mexico, for instance, where I spent a good deal of time. I mean, there were some horses that were testing positive for pain medicine that was 10, 20, 30 times the allowable level. And they were allowed to continue to race without penalty. Now the horsemen who are criticizing our numbers, I never heard them speaking out about that. Why don't they look at these numbers and say, well, how can we fix this? Yes. And as a result of our story New Mexico is taking another look at how they regulate racing. They recognize that they have a problem. They've said that they had a problem. And in many - and they've also, in essence, thanked us for bringing this out in the open, which is now allowing them to try and make adjustments to be tougher on the drug violators, to do a better job of overseeing this very important industry.
DAVIES: You write that in other countries there are our national bodies which govern racing and impose tough regulations and sanctions when regulations are violated. Is there any appetite, in Congress, for taking this on?
BOGDANICH: They've introduced legislation and had a couple hearings. There seems to be some noise for it but I sat through the hearings in Pennsylvania last week and basically Ed Whitfield, a congressman from Kentucky who wrote the legislation, said look, I don't want this to end up in federal control either. You know, there's a lot of things going on in this country and this world that need attention. I don't really think Congress wants to step into this and take this over and add another level of bureaucracy.
But they do want something to change and, you know, again, I go back to that no law and order, no meaningful penalties. We've got a trainer of the Kentucky Derby winner, Doug O'Neill, he's had 15 medication drug violations. Three times he's been found to have milkshaked a horse.
And to milkshake a horse is a way of putting a tube down in their throat with some baking powder and an other concoction that's supposed to battle lactic acid and help them run through fatigue. In all his time - he's got a case pending right now, he may face 180 days of suspension - but in all this time over these 10 years where he's incurred these infractions he's maybe served 15 days of suspension, a suspension where he could turn it over to his assistants, his stable, and never miss a beat. The horses keep running. If they win, they keep getting their purses. You know, that's what America lacks that the rest of the world has. They have law and order.
DAVIES: So you're saying that the trainer of the winning horse in the Kentucky Derby has, what would we call it, a checkered history?
BOGDANICH: Doug O'Neill has 15 violations for drug overages, violations, what have you. He's been caught or at least found guilty of milkshaking horses three times, including in the Illinois Derby, in a big race.
DAVIES: So we see these issues even in the Kentucky Derby. This isn't just little kind of marginal tracks (unintelligible) racino.
BOGDANICH: Yes. We see these things at its highest level. In 2008, Big Brown almost won the Triple Crown, got beat in Belmont Park. He was trained by Richard Dutrow. Richard Dutrow basically talked about the steroids he gave him. It brought the end of the steroid age but it also shined a light on Richard Dutrow who had more than 60 violations, 15 states, all over the world.
And New York basically banned him for 10 years for life, and they did it last fall and he's still one of the leading trainers right now because nobody can enforce anything. It's in the court system. It's on appeal. He still has horses. He's still racing at the top levels. He may even have one in for the Preakness.
DAVIES: Do either of you take your families to the track? Is it a good experience?
BOGDANICH: I do take my family to the track. My son is seven and he's been to Saratoga every summer. You know, a couple things. I've written books about horse racing. I actually love the sport. My dad taught me it when I was a kid. I went to Hot Springs, Arkansas, and Omaha, Nebraska, as my first racetracks. The history of it; it basically was America's first sport. It outdates baseball. It was essential to the American character - I've got a horse faster than yours.
And the racetrack can be a great place, an exciting place. And I just got the ratings for the Kentucky Derby. Fourteen million people watched it and over half of them were female. So it has sort of a cross cultural allure.
These are beautiful animals running their hearts out. The excitement of you're invested in it for two bucks, if you want to be, for two minutes. The whole, I guess, environment and ecosystem of a racetrack. So, yes, I do see the attraction of it. And, you know, if anybody asked me I would just say less is more.
That it's one thing to walk through Saratoga, which works, Keeneland, which works, Del Mar which works. Where you've got 30,000 people there and everybody's having fun versus Penn National where there's 70 people at night in the cold betting on these six- or seven-horse fields mainly just because they can.
DAVIES: Well, Joe Drape, Walt Bogdanich, thanks so much for speaking with us.
DRAPE: Thank you.
GROSS: FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies spoke with New York Times reporters Walt Bogdanich and Joe Drape about their investigative series on the horse racing industry. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews "Dark Shadows." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.