Recent tragedies emphasize need for continued focus on horse health and safety
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They’re off and running at Assiniboia Downs. As a new season of racing begins, we need to talk about technology — and tragedy — at the track.
It’s going to look a little different this year, with a couple of intriguing new bells and whistles on display that should up the stakes and make life a lot more interesting for those who have skin in the game.
GPS trackers will be attached to the saddle towel of every horse thanks to an ASD partnership with a Kentucky-based company. That means literally every trot will be monitored in real time, allowing for comprehensive data collection and advanced analytics the likes we’ve never seen around here.
It will also make for a more immersive viewing experience, whether watching in person, at home online or in a sportsbook around the world, with colourful displays showing you the exact race order every step of the way.
“We had the company come up and spend a week with and go around mapping out the racetrack, setting up a bunch of sensors all around,” Downs CEO Darren Dunn told me Tuesday. “It is cutting edge, leading edge that is on the same level as a Churchill Downs, a Belmont Park and other tier one tracks in the world. It’s a very rich graphics system.”
The pulse-pounding action can be tough to follow for some, so this is another tool in the box that will help break down the blur many see unfolding before them. It will also allow for an unprecedented level of detailed information to be collected by handicappers. Same for owners, trainers and jockeys, who will be able to pore through the minutiae of an individual race to see where things might have gone wrong, or right, and make any necessary adjustments.
Speaking of which, move over, mere mortals. ASD is jumping head-first into the world of artificial intelligence. A partnership with Dark Horse Bets will give gamblers the most comprehensive insight available.
Dunn expects seasoned track veterans will likely be reluctant to change their ways, at least initially, opting for their tried and true methods. In that sense, this is likely geared more towards novices and newbies who could use a helping hand.
“It is cutting edge, leading edge that is on the same level as a Churchill Downs, a Belmont Park and other tier one tracks in the world. It’s a very rich graphics system.”–Assiniboia Downs CEO Darren Dunn
It will be fascinating to see the results, over time, and who wins out between the old school and new school ways of weighing the odds. My money is on the computers.
“Who knows where this ultimately goes,” said Dunn. “Woodbine has put this together and spent years on it. It was a substantial, seven-figure number in terms of research, analytics and production to produce this product.”
When the pandemic hit in 2020, ASD had to re-think how it does business. The result was a shift to making its product more marketable beyond Manitoba, which is the main reason they’ve shifted to a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday racing schedule. There’s much less competition on those nights, and it’s resulted in record online wagering in recent years.
These latest investments are part of that ongoing strategy. ASD got off to a strong start Monday night when a total of $1,097,520 was bet as the 2023 campaign got underway.
Good news for the various stakeholders. What about the mane attraction?
The Sport of Kings is nothing without its stud athletes, and unfortunately we’ve seen several recent examples of horses paying the ultimate price. It’s the dark side of the industry that simply can’t be ignored.
Last Saturday, veterinarians had to euthanize Havnameltdown after he suffered a serious ankle injury while stumbling around a turn at Pimlico Race Course after the Chick Lang Stakes ahead of the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore. This comes on the heels of seven horses dying at Churchill Downs in the week leading up to the Kentucky Derby, including two on race day with more than 150,000 people looking on from the stands.
These high-profile incidents have led to renewed calls for sweeping changes from animal rights activists.
If you simply went off these headlines, you’d assume things are heading in the wrong direction. You’d be wrong. Consider this: According to the Jockey Club, the rate of thoroughbred deaths in the United States continues to decline, from two deaths per 1,000 starts in 2009, to 1.25 per 1,000 starts in 2022. That’s a 37.5 per cent drop.
“We take the approach of respect and protect relative to how we maintain our track surface, with detailed repetition of best practices, and then the veterinary care is second to none in my opinion.”–Darren Dunn
Among the reasons cited are advances in medical science and veterinary care, enhanced diet and nutrition and medication, better scrutiny of track surfaces and even weather and racing conditions.
According to Dunn, ASD had four horses die in the 2022 season out of a total of 2,450 starts, for an average of 1.63 per 1,000 starts. That’s in line with similar years.
“Our rate is among the lowest in North America and something we’re very proud of,” said Dunn. “We take the approach of respect and protect relative to how we maintain our track surface, with detailed repetition of best practices, and then the veterinary care is second to none in my opinion. Some of the best vets you’ll find anywhere.”
A healthy horse is obviously best for business, and Dunn expects conditions will continue to improve in that department.
“It can be cost prohibitive for smaller tracks because there are certain pieces of equipment that are extremely expensive that can provide additional scanning information beyond what an experienced human can do. You’re seeing that now being introduced at some of the bigger racetracks in California, Florida and the East Coast,” said Dunn.
“We look forward to that adoption eventually at the tier two tracks (like ASD).”
What happened in Kentucky was shocking. There’s no specific trend or pattern for what was essentially a freak cluster on a huge stage. Four sustained injuries in races preceding the Derby. One suffered a broken neck after getting spooked in a paddock. Two collapsed and died after participating in races with no signs of injury.
I’d argue there’s no satisfactory number above zero when it comes to deaths. The reality is, short of doing away with the sport entirely there’s no way to eliminate all injury and accidents when you have thoroughbreds built for speed who weigh more than 1,000 pounds racing in tight quarters at speeds beyond 40 m.p.h.
It would be great if there was software or an app available that would ensure every horse makes it safely across the finish line. If technology can continue to reduce the number of tragedies, then at least we’re on the right track.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.