The Man Who Would Kill Horse Racing

The Man Who Would Kill Horse Racing
Illustration: Jim Cooke (G/O Media), Photo: Getty
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In a garden-variety suburb outside Albany—a recent July morning, but it could have been any morning—Patrick Battuello woke up at five, brewed a cup of coffee, and then sat at his computer to review the previous day’s horse races. He’s done this every day for the last six years. This was a Monday, and so there were a large number to go through: 233 races at 26 racetracks, from Saratoga to the Gillespie County Fairground. He wasn’t looking for winners. He was looking for dead horses.

More precisely, Battuello was looking for comments in the post-race charts that point to a fatal end: pulled up in distress, went wrong, took a bad step, was injured. When he came to Emerald Downs in Washington State, he found two races where a horse “fell” and was “vanned off” by the horse ambulance. This track-speak only hints at a bad outcome, and serves to shield the truth from all but the most discerning eyes.

In the first race on July 21, a young gelding called Racy Opinion was making his very first start against other inexpensive two-year-olds; any owner on the grounds could buy one for a fixed price of $15,000 in what’s known as a claiming race. They’re the bread-and-butter of horse racing in this country. In the final yards, Racy Opinion’s jockey tries to split a pair of horses, but the opening slams shut and Racy Opinion drops like a lead balloon. The video is sickening in its suddenness. The camera catches Racy Opinion somersault onto the track but never cuts back. Five races later, another two-year-old, named Informed Lady, collapses to her right in the middle of the stretch, as if in slow-motion, while the frontrunners pull away.

Battuello searched Twitter for information, but few reporters, if any, regularly cover Emerald Downs, and on-site attendance averages under four thousand. Battuello looked out the window onto the front lawn of his three-bedroom ranch. It was pouring rain.

“Best guess?” he said to me. “At least one of these two are dead.

“But I’ll have to wait until I get confirmation from the state.”

Horse racing doesn’t have a national regulatory body, and so keeping track of its fatalities presumably falls on the 38 separate state commissions that oversee it. Beginning in 2015, Battuello began sending Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to each commission, asking for the names of the dead. He publishes his findings on a website he founded called Horseracing Wrongs, and they include more than 5,000 racetrack deaths (he calls them “kills”) over the last five years, with names, dates, and locations. On his desk, the lists of the deaths through last December had been printed and bound in a 130-page spiral-bound book. He gave it to me to take home.

Battuello added Racy Opinion and Informed Lady to his weekly report of “Vanned Off” horses. There were 25 in all that week, and many of those will end up on his 2019 “killed list” after his FOIA requests are returned later this year. He downloaded the minutes of the weekly California stewards’ meeting, which typically mentions on-track deaths, and then he searched a few forums and the Twitter feeds of racing reporters for leads on injured horses. He added to his list of confirmed 2019 casualties through July; from that group of more than 300, he would write a few brief obituaries based in part on the horrible details of their deaths. He gets that information from fatality reports and necropsies, or postmortem exams, that states send him. Battuello publishes one short post almost every day—sometimes twice a day—in what amounts to a news service for horse racing carnage. Seabiscuit this is not, and it makes for disturbing reading:

In one of my recent “Weekly Reports,” I noted that Mr. Frank “fell after crossing the finish line and was vanned off” at Golden Gate August 18. In fact, he is dead, with KRON noting “Mr. Frank had a cardiac event, possibly a heart attack.” Mr. Frank was three years old. Yes, three years old – “cardiac event,” “possible heart attack.”

Another post simply lists the horses killed at Finger Lakes so far this year:

Bonafide Bandit, Mar 26, stall – “cast in stall”
Owen’s Express, Apr 2, training – “fractured right shoulder”
Facade, May 11, stall – “colic”
Ransom Note, Jul 10, racing – “fractured 3rd carpal”
D Emcee, Jul 12, training – “fractured sesamoid”
She’sakittykat, Jul 12, stall – “laminitis”
Fabulous Prince, Jul 15, racing – “flipped in the gate, skull fracture”
Avon Gold, Aug 3, training – “suffered a fracture to the pastern”
Frosty Millions, Aug 13, racing – “unresolved injuries”
It’s Flashy, Aug 17, training – “expired after breezing”
Take Charge Jamie, Aug 24, training – “sustained injury to leg”
Warrens Vengeance, Sep 3, racing – “fracture[d] limb necessitating euthanasia”

That post is punctuated by a shocking stock photograph of a horse lying on its right side, its left front leg graphically broken and dangling. It’s not clear whether the photo was taken before or after the horse was euthanized. It’s the sort of photo Battuello wants you to see, because it’s the truth about the sport, and because it’s the sort of photo the industry doesn’t want you to see.

The Man Who Would Kill Horse Racing
Photo: Getty

Horses die on the track for all sorts of reasons, and it happens in America with a frequency not seen in other racing nations. The reasons are many, and they add up: the use and abuse of injury-masking drugs; the unforgiving dirt surfaces and sprint-centric racing; the year-round schedule without a built-in offseason; and an overall lack of transparency and oversight. For decades, the racing industry has avoided investing in advanced drug testing and strict anti-doping regulation. Horses are also fragile animals bred for speed. Above all, though, the economics show that owners on average put in twice as much as money as they get back, and so profit often trumps the welfare of the horse. With loose enforcement and minor penalties (and, as evidenced by the quiet burial of a drug test violation by Triple Crown winner Justify, an apparent double standard for the most successful), many trainers, owners, and private vets will do whatever they can to win.

On Horseracing Wrongs, however, Battuello is more concerned with the outcome rather than the causes. To him, that a horse died is what matters, and adding up those deaths has given him the quantifiable evidence he believes he needs to take on an entire industry. Without him, we might never know exactly how many racehorses die. And we would only rarely hear their names.

Inside his uncluttered office, there is little to give away Battuello’s mission other than a Horseracing Wrongs mousepad. But here, the 53-year-old Battuello has been waging a campaign to end horse racing in the U.S. He admits it’s an extreme position, but one he says is supported by the figures and stories contained within the public records he receives. In one post entitled “The Inevitability of Dead Racehorses,” he wrote: “Horseracing Wrongs is an abolitionist organization. We are not interested in compromises, reforms, or half-measures. Racing must go.”

It’s a two-pronged campaign, with Battuello’s partner, Nicole Arciello, helping organize protests at some 23 racetracks (and counting) in 17 states. They’re unlikely opponents. Battuello, a father of two, has spent all but a few years of his life in New York’s capital region, where Saratoga Race Course and horse racing still rule. Arciello, who has one child from a previous marriage, has lived there her entire life. Battuello’s a third-generation pizzeria owner, but after reading the book Animal Liberation 17 years ago, he opened the area’s first all-vegan restaurant and later began writing a blog about animal rights for Albany’s Times Union. Arciello is a vegan chef and also contributed to the blog. In horse racing, they found a cause that they believed their fellow activists had long ignored. On his website and in op-eds, Battuello refers to himself as the “nation’s leading expert on racehorse deaths.” It’s hard to dispute, and since this spring, it’s become something of a full-time job.

Santa Anita on the last day of the winter/spring meet.
Santa Anita on the last day of the winter/spring meet.
Photo: Getty

After 30 horses died racing or training at Santa Anita Park in its winter/spring meet—usually described in the press as a “rash” or “spike” in fatalities—the deadliness of horse racing became national news. Last month, the CEO of a global public relations firm recently hired by the Jockey Club, the industry’s oldest organization, said that 20,000 news stories had already come out this year on “the industry and our troubles.” Separately, other state and national organizations and racetrack companies sought their own high-paid crisis management consultants, including from the same firm that the NFL hired during its concussion crisis.

Battuello, on the other hand, called Santa Anita a “golden moment” to make his anti-racing case, after doing so for years without much visibility outside upstate New York. He was interviewed on CNN and HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, quoted in USA Today and the Los Angeles Times, and invited to testify at a New York State Senate hearing on the issue. He stressed that what happened at Santa Anita wasn’t an aberration, but the norm. He knew several racetracks in Pennsylvania and West Virginia that had twice or even three times the number of fatalities as Santa Anita in a single year, but few people outside those places seemed to know or care. But given Santa Anita’s stature, a couple dozen deaths set off a media storm.

In fact, Battuello was quick to point out that Santa Anita had been even deadlier than surface reports indicated. The famed track didn’t experience a spike in deaths at all, he said, but more like a cluster, since it averaged 50 per season going back a decade. Through the California Horse Racing Board, Battuello also identified six horses that died of what officials often call “non-racing causes,” a rather euphemistic explanation for dangerous conditions like colic and laminitis that occur as a result of racetrack life. Even now, those six are rarely included in news coverage of Santa Anita’s deaths, as if they’re somehow less noteworthy.

“Once I started finding out I could get this information,” Battuello told me, “it gave me so much confidence to go out there and take on a multibillion-dollar industry.”

Besides receiving numerous media requests—when I visited him, one arrived from Rochester’s WXXI after four horses died within six days at Finger Lakes racetrack—Battuello also seeks out press, for example, writing the Berkshire Eagle to oppose the reintroduction of thoroughbred racing at the Great Barrington Fairgrounds in western Massachusetts. Meanwhile, as Santa Anita remained in the news, he increased some of his FOIA requests from annually to quarterly, so that his 2019 list would remain as current as possible. Recent headlines on Horseracing Wrongs include: “Vile: 9-Year-Old Killed in 106th Race,” “‘Catastrophic Injury’ at Penn; ‘Expired After Breezing’ at Finger Lakes,” and “‘Thrashed and Collapsed in Starting Gate’ – 19 More Dead Horses for Apologists to Account For.”

The industry clearly feels the urgency, too. Last month in Saratoga, the Jockey Club held its 67th annual round table conference, and this ongoing public-relations disaster was the major point of discussion inside the old Gideon Putnam hotel. (Disclosure: In 2013, I was invited to speak at the conference about reporting I’d done on doping and medication abuse.) Stuart S. Janney III, the chairman of the Jockey Club who appeared in the same HBO segment as Battuello, might well have been thinking of him when he said, “When you have fans, animal rights activists, media representatives, and even elected officials calling for the abolition of our sport, you’re dealing with a very serious crisis.”

Horse racing has been under the spotlight like this before, on and off going back almost four decades to the introduction of the Corrupt Horse Racing Practices Act of 1983, a Congressional bill designed to “prohibit the drugging or numbing of racehorses and related practices.” Twenty-five years later, racing’s leaders were hauled before Congress after Kentucky Derby runner-up Eight Belles suffered a fatal breakdown on national television. But the glare usually fades, and racing returns to normal. If this time is different, it might be in large part because Horseracing Wrongs now exists, leading a movement that calls the sport itself into question. Like the activists who targeted Ringling Brothers or greyhound racing, they’re not seeking reforms and, according to Battuello, they’re not going away.

On the afternoon of the Jockey Club conference, Battuello and Arciello led their weekly Sunday protest at Saratoga’s busy Union Avenue entrance; some of those who had attended the conference in the morning surely passed them on their way in. Arciello wore a custom t-shirt that read: “You can love horses. You can love horseracing. You can’t love both.”

A protest at Santa Anita.
A protest at Santa Anita.
Photo: Getty

Only six people had come out for their first protest there, in 2014, and Arciello said she cried all the way home. They can get upwards of a hundred protestors now. Carrying graphic posters and bullhorns, they reminded bettors and fans that 10 racehorses had already perished at Saratoga this year. Two died during races, while the others had died during morning training or in their stalls, incidents that only some on the grounds might be aware of—and readers of Horseracing Wrongs, of course.

“When you start reading through the data,” Battuello said, “it’s just hard to defend.”

So, here’s the ultimate question: How many active racehorses die every year in this country, at the hundreds of racetracks, training centers, and farms?

Either nobody in the industry knows or, if they do, they’re not saying. Despite all those billions of dollars floating around the sport, there is no central database that tracks deaths. It’s nearly impossible to answer the question. The fullest picture comes from the state-by-state puzzle that Battuello has pieced together.

Battuello’s year-end kill lists average around a thousand—most of them thoroughbreds but also a couple hundred quarterhorses and standardbreds—and he estimates that another thousand are unaccounted for each year in state records. (He says he’s only ever withdrawn two names from his lists after the original records turned out to be inaccurate.) He says he’s never been challenged on this estimate, but then, racing’s leaders have made a point of not engaging him. I asked the Jockey Club if a complete accounting of thoroughbred deaths exists, and they said that they ask for this information to be reported to their registry, but they have no way of knowing if the record is complete. No estimates were offered.

Since 2008, most racetracks in North America have voluntarily reported their injury data—fatal and non-fatal, racing and training—to the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database. The data is used “to identify markers for horses at increased risk of injury and as a source for research directed at improving safety and preventing injuries,” according to Kristin Werner Leshney, the Jockey Club’s senior counsel.

The Man Who Would Kill Horse Racing
Photo: Getty

The Jockey Club releases an annual summary of its data on race-related deaths, but it doesn’t disclose the training deaths it also collects. (A death must occur within 72 hours of a race to count as race-related.) That number is typically presented as a rate of fatalities per 1,000 starts. In 2018, it was 1.68, down from 2.0 when the database launched in 2009. Racetracks and state racing commissions often cite this ratio, and for the sake of statistical comparison it makes some sense. But it isn’t easy to comprehend or calculate unless you know the number of starts in a given year. It’s also a low number to the untrained eye.

“That’s meant to obscure the real numbers,” one independent analyst, who asked to remain anonymous because he works for several racing groups, told me. “Ask Joe Blow on the street what that means. Nobody knows. The whole thing is meant to confuse.”

The raw numbers aren’t exactly spelled out in neon lights, either. From the Equine Injury Database’s homepage, you have to click on the 2019 press release, which then includes a link to the database’s 10-year table. That table breaks out fatalities by track surface, race distance, and age of the horse. According to the table, 493 thoroughbreds died on the track in 2018 and the same number in 2017. But Battuello collected 835 in 2018—that is, racing and training deaths—and 866 the year before.

At least four states don’t maintain or disclose training fatalities at all, Battuello told me, and that includes Louisiana, which averaged 60 racing deaths per year from 2014 through 2018. Last year, the Louisiana Racing Commission’s assistant attorney general wrote him, “We do not track or maintain a list of deaths that occur during training hours as those are more often than not handled between the trainer and their private veterinarian.”

The Jockey Club’s database currently accounts for about 95 percent of all starts in North America, with Oaklawn Park in Arkansas the most high-profile track that doesn’t submit its data. (Battuello has long tried to get Oaklawn’s death count, and the track’s response has usually been that such a list doesn’t exist. But the Arkansas Racing Commission recently sent him information on 10 racing and training deaths at Oaklawn for this year alone.) Of the 109 racetracks that have contributed to the database since its inception, only 25 make their statistics available on the Jockey Club’s website. The horses themselves remain anonymous.

It’s a huge data set, and for the Jockey Club and the veterinarians it hires, they say a valuable one. But its research purpose—statistical analysis of possible risk factors—runs counter to Battuello’s. To him a racehorse’s entire existence is one significant risk factor. He’s interested in a full record, in the same way a country lists its casualties of war, and in bringing to life their deaths. An anonymous database “keeps the names and faces of the dead safely secreted away,” Battuello wrote a few years ago. “Messy carcasses converted to sterile ratios.”

In my list of questions submitted to the Jockey Club, I asked why training and non-racing fatalities, if they’re collected, aren’t made public in the annual summary. “The annual summary is a report on the number of racing fatalities per thousand starts,” was their answer, which is true, but not actually an answer. I asked if they would share those numbers with me and their response was: “By agreement with each of the participating tracks, injury information is provided by the participating racetracks on a confidential basis.”

Despite this confidentiality, racetracks are required to send that information to the state racing commissions that regulate them—which means they’re Battuello’s sources, too, ultimately.

The Jockey Club told me that the consultant on its database, Dr. Tim Parkin, a professor of veterinary epidemiology at the University of Glasgow, is utilizing “all of the race, training and non-racing injury data” in his analyses. They pointed me to a presentation he gave last year on the data, and it was interesting in terms of the risk factors he’d highlighted. Near the end of his talk, Parkin spoke to the issue of training deaths: “Most previous studies suggest that there are at least as many injuries and fatalities in training as there are on the racetrack.”

Before watching this, I’d asked the Jockey Club if their data supported the hypothesis that training and racing deaths are about equal, and their answer was no.

But Battuello’s year-end figures also point in that direction. On top of that, there are twice as many private-training facilities as racetracks in this country, and none of them are required to report their fatalities to state racing commissions. I’ve also heard from other veterinarians in the past who said training deaths often exceed racing deaths. At Santa Anita’s winter/spring meet, 13 of the 30 racetrack deaths happened in morning workouts alone.

A morning ride at Saratoga.
A morning ride at Saratoga.
Photo: AP

Or look at Saratoga. Sixteen horses died there this year, more than recent seasons, but only four will appear in the Jockey Club’s death rate. Of the rest, eight suffered fatal training injuries, three were found in distress in their stalls, and a million-dollar earner named Divine Miss Grey had to be euthanized three weeks after she was vanned off from an early August race. In 2017, Saratoga had 21 dead, its highest total since the state began keeping a public record in 2009. Only six, however, appear in Saratoga’s Equine Injury Database table for that year. Eleven others died in training, two from colic, and another two in steeplechase races, which also aren’t counted.

Other tracks receive far less scrutiny than Santa Anita and Saratoga, where the horses are the crème de la crème. Morning training is unregulated everywhere, since track or state veterinarians are only required to check horses on the day of their race. Trainers usually don’t even have to announce a workout until their horses go onto the track. Santa Anita became an exception when it instituted a policy that forced the trainer to give 24-hour notice, which the track would approve or deny. One long-time clocker in south Florida once said that that she’d seen too many morning breakdowns to remember them all. “It happens a lot, let’s put it that way,” she said.

You still get bizarre accidents in morning sessions, like at Del Mar in July, when a horse tossed its rider and began running the wrong way, colliding head-on with another. Both died on impact. There are usually dozens of horses on the track at the same time, some breezing quickly along the inside rail, others galloping along the outside. Exercise riders and jockeys don’t have to be cleared to ride in the mornings, and horses aren’t drug tested before or after workouts. In 2014, out-of-competition testing in Kentucky revealed “a disturbing trend for high medication loads in morning workouts.”

“In my opinion, these horses are bred to race, so any death is a racing death,” the independent analyst, who obviously doesn’t share Battuello’s anti-racing stance, told me. “The more you run, the better chance you have to die.”

Besides the bound copy of all those dead racehorse names, Battuello provided me with hundreds of pages of print and digital records he has received from state racing commissions. Unlike the industry he is focused on bringing down, he is an open book.

As a whole, the record-keeping comes across as inconsistent or indifferent. In response to FOIA requests, most states send a simple spreadsheet or list, containing the horse’s name, date of death, racetrack, how the death occurred (racing, training, or other), and the nature of the death, which can be general, as in “Fractured neck,” or more specific, such as “Comminuted medial sesamoid fracture RF.” Some offer copies of handwritten dead horse reports from racetrack security departments, which also include the attending veterinarian, whether the horse was insured, and any medications the horse was being treated with. And a few states send necropsies that explain in clinical detail, including with photos of broken limbs, how the horse died.

Indiana, Minnesota, and California redact or refuse to identify the names of the deceased horses, and Kentucky did too until a report in June by Caitlin McGlade of the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting catalogued the commission’s secrecy. Kentucky provided necropsies but with enough redactions to make them look like top-secret NSA documents: the horse’s name, age, sex, owner, trainer, date of death and the racetrack and race number were all blacked out. The commission’s deputy general counsel claimed that releasing that information could put trainers and owners at a competitive disadvantage.

An example of a necropsy report released by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.
An example of a necropsy report released by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.
Image: KyCIR

In emails Battuello shared with me, Indiana’s and Minnesota’s commissions have told him that they redact names because of confidentiality statutes in their veterinary medicine laws. Only the horse’s owner, trainer and veterinarian are permitted to know. Indiana provides Battuello a list that includes the racetrack and date of the fatal injury, so he’s often able to cross-reference the race charts, whereas Minnesota simply sends him the number of dead.

Although California redacts names, it releases the necropsies that are done at UC-Davis, which has been state protocol since 1990. (Currently, the state racing commission provides the names of racetrack deaths to those, like Battuello, who ask.) They come across like reading about car-crash victims. Pulling randomly from the stack of papers, this past February at Golden Gate Fields, in northern California, an unidentified four-year-old thoroughbred gelding collapsed while training and then shattered his left front cannon bone. That was the initial injury. “The cervical vertebrae fracture, which caused the spinal cord to be severed and led to death, is presumed to be a secondary traumatic event immediately following the leg fracture.”

Pennsylvania used to release comprehensive reports, but now sends basic spreadsheets. Maryland recently moved in the opposite direction. It began undertaking 20-page reports on every fatal injury, and they include interviews with the trainer, jockey, and involved veterinarians, along with race, workout, medication, and veterinary histories.

Rarely are stall deaths examined in such detail, although they also occur at the racetrack. Battuello separates them in his year-end lists but includes them nonetheless since he argues that “morally they are no less casualties” than racing and training deaths. He sees them all as “killed in action,” a pointed description that likens the horses to conscripted soldiers. Battuello, who attended a military high school, is a student of the Civil War and invokes it in his rationale.

“I was always taught that 620,000 soldiers died in the Civil War, but what most people don’t realize is that two-thirds died of disease,” he said. “But in all my reading, nobody has ever claimed that those weren’t true war casualties and to try to separate them out from the battlefield deaths. Clearly, if not for the war they wouldn’t have been in those camps and the disease wouldn’t have felled them. It’s the same thing with horse racing. They’re in servitude to the industry: whether they die on the track from a broken leg or back in the stall from colic, it’s a casualty.”

The Man Who Would Kill Horse Racing
Photo: Getty

In 2018, Battuello found 1,122 casualties from the various U.S. tracks—with the disclaimer that a handful of states don’t disclose training deaths and a few small jurisdictions keep incomplete records. But there are casualties that occur outside the racetrack that will never appear in any public records—training deaths at the 200-plus private facilities in the U.S., horses that are euthanized back at their owner’s farm after a race, or those left with rescue organizations who were too far gone to rehabilitate.

One of Horseracing Wrongs’ board members is Joy Aten, who oversaw the intake of ex-racehorses at Michigan’s Great Lakes Downs and nearby farms for nine years for a group called CANTER. According to a spreadsheet she sent me, from October 2002 through May 2007, 164 out of the 280 horses they rescued had to be euthanized within a year. (Although most came right off the racetrack, a small number were donated years after they stopped racing.) Some only survived a couple of weeks because of the severity of their injuries—such as Sunder Bay, who began his career at Santa Anita but ended up being raced at Great Lakes Downs with a tendon that was almost completely torn away, or Storming, a former Aqueduct runner left in his stall for almost two weeks with a severe knee fracture. Storming was euthanized one day after he was given to CANTER.

Far from the pageantry of the Triple Crown, this is the real face of American horse racing, in which roughly half of all races are claiming ones where the runners are valued at $10,000 or less.

“Yes, I was at a cheap track,” Aten told me, “but some of the horses we took in started out at Saratoga, Santa Anita, Del Mar, Churchill Downs and Keeneland, and they fall and they fall and they fall until they can fall no further.”

For all the deaths he knows aren’t recorded, Battuello claims that his tally could “easily and reasonably be doubled” to reach an estimate of 2,000 active racehorses dying every year. I asked the Jockey Club, which is exclusive to thoroughbreds, about Battuello’s estimate, and they said the number of race-related fatalities is the number they would reference—493 last year—since it is “supported by an extensive [quality control] process to make sure the data is completely reported.” Quantifying the other types of fatalities, they said, would only be anecdotal.

The independent analyst I spoke to thinks Battuello’s estimate is in the ballpark. The thoroughbred foal crop is now about 20,000 annually, and historically, he told me, about 20 percent of those never even make it to the races. Scott Blasi, an assistant trainer to Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, captured that reality in a PETA investigation of Asmussen’s stable in 2013. “You could not believe how many [horses] they hurt and kill before they ever even get to the racetrack,” Blasi said in the undercover footage. “It’s mind-boggling.”

At the other end, about 10,000 thoroughbred racehorses exit the system every year, old and young, never to race again. And where do they go? The majority will go to slaughterhouses in Canada or Mexico, which supports recent estimates from within the industry. Relatively few horses are safe, even ones sent overseas for racing or breeding careers. As I reported earlier this year for Deadspin, Korean owners purchase hundreds of American racehorses every year and most ultimately end up at a bleak concrete slaughterhouse on a small island south of the Korean mainland.

Horse racing is a numbers game, and those figures speak to its attrition. To put it in perspective, 46,140 individual thoroughbreds raced in the U.S. last year and there were 36,404 races.

“You can see it takes a staggering amount of horseflesh to make that product,” the analyst told me. “Thirty horses at Santa Anita is a drop in the bucket compared to the dust-to-dust numbers needed to maintain this gigantic enterprise. I think industry players are happy to talk about racetrack fatalities if it means avoiding a conversation about the machine of racing.”

I began subscribing to Horseracing Wrongs around the time of Battuello’s appearance on HBO in May, and each time a new post arrived in my inbox, I felt a sinking feeling. After following and covering horse racing for more than two decades, sometimes closely and sometimes not, its damage isn’t news to me. I’ve tried to write about that over the years, and looked for signs of reform. But Battuello’s relentless, cold-eyed prying into its dark corners made me rethink many of my old notions. So did that book he gave me, which sat on my desk as I wrote this article. All those horses, with their names and ages and places of death, were organized chronologically, and it was easy to flip through and find days where five or six died.

It made me realize that I usually thought about the bettor, the jockey, the trainer, and the owner, about their stories, before I thought about the horse—these magnificent athletes playing silent parts in this unconventional drama. The tales of the sport’s grand past, summoned from a sentimental American sporting history, once seduced me—as did the winner’s circle photos that decorated the walls of my childhood home, the sunny artifacts of my father’s training days before I came along.

Most people I knew at the track worried about winning or losing more than the animal. From Kentucky’s bluebloods on down, racing is a gambling enterprise in every sense; strip that out and there’s nothing left. It’s what appeals to many—the data-heavy approach that girds everything from breeding horses to betting on them—but it’s also what’s afforded Battuello the statistical evidence to build the groundwork for his campaign to end racing.

This machine has many parts, and they’re interdependent. And although it’s easy to get swept up by the spectacle at the top, there isn’t much majesty about most of the racetracks I’ve walked into, or the grinding, deadly nature of what racehorses have to do. Or worse still, the livestock auctions where they end up when they are no longer useful. Those places are backstops, as are the end-of-the-road racetracks, and without them people just might have to breed fewer racehorses.

The Man Who Would Kill Horse Racing
Photo: Getty

An attack that Battuello’s critics often level against him is that you can’t understand horse racing unless you’ve walked down a shedrow. It’s not that simple. I’ve walked down many, many shedrows, and although I noticed, I didn’t think anything unusual about the horses cribbing on their stall doors or pacing around their tiny boxes because they spend 22 or 23 hours a day in there. I also didn’t give extra thought to the ones that tried to take a chunk out of my arm when I walked by. Their handlers called them surly, but maybe they were bored and angered or stressed by their confinement or punishing routine. The best runners are the ones that can stand up to that, and the most successful trainers the ones who can pick them out. It often appears as if the industry is concerned with a baseline level of care for all horses only to the extent it’s forced to care, by political or media or public pressure.

Battuello has a section on his website called Shedrow Secrets, featuring accounts from insiders, but it hasn’t filled up quickly. He’s clearly not writing for people who make their living in racing (most of the commenters, for instance, appear to be fellow animal-rights supporters), although it’d certainly give him a boost if a few defected. This summer, an exercise rider of 20 years came across the site via an animal-rights petition, and she found herself agreeing with Battuello’s focus on the whole picture—“the way they’re treated and the way they live.”

She’s ridden at a dozen different tracks, mostly minor-league ones, but a few that are known for big-time races. After she commented on a post, Battuello asked her if she’d write about her experiences. Because she didn’t see others coming forward, she agreed. In her essay she describes galloping two unsound horses that snapped their legs and had to be euthanized on the spot. Another injured horse she galloped was kept in his stall for a week before the Meat Man came by to take him to the livestock auction. She said the memory still haunts her.

When I spoke to her on the phone, she asked that her name be withheld because she feels certain she’d lose her employment if she came forward publicly. She described looking for work at the racetrack in her late teens like joining the circus. “I was shocked from the get-go about pretty much every bit of it,” she said. “I couldn’t believe I was getting on horses and they were limping.” I was familiar with the places she’d galloped horses, including the one where the Meat Man was a weekly fixture, but she has seen far worse than I ever will, at the kinds of racetracks where there’s more asphalt than grass, where most horses require painkillers, and where down-on-their-luck horsemen sleep in their cars.

Thoroughbreds are bred to race, she said, but their lives are rarely questioned. And when those lives end on the track, the veterinarians pull out large curtains to make sure the public doesn’t see.

A horse is euthanized on the track behind a screen.
A horse is euthanized on the track behind a screen.
Photo: AP

I’ve wondered how Battuello could read through all those death reports and not become numb to the grisly specifics. Despite having done this for years, a recent Maryland Racing Commission report on a double fatality at Laurel Park in January left him horrified. Three-year-old filly Tuffy’s Way’s left leg shattered and another filly named Kimberly B. fell over her and in the process fractured two vertebrae and severed her spine. Track veterinarians euthanized both on the spot.

Battuello said he might read from their death reports (you can read them here and here) at an upcoming animal-rights conference. But he told me he wishes the general public knew about deaths like these.

“This alone should be enough for people to swear off this industry for good,” he said. “Why do these horses have to die? For gambling? For entertainment?”

The first time we spoke, he said if people had to choose only one post of his to read, it should be “How They Die.” (He also compiled a companion list, “How They Die, Too,” for the horses that died of “non-racing” causes.) Battuello likes to say there’s nothing peaceful about death at the track, as he told the New York State Senate in June: “It is cardiovascular collapse, pulmonary hemorrhage, blunt-force head trauma; it is broken necks, crushed spines, ruptured ligaments, and shattered legs.”

Ringling Brothers circus closed in 2017 after 146 years in business. Battuello also takes encouragement from the dwindling fortunes of SeaWorld and of greyhound racing, which he sees as examples of a sea change in culture. But horse racing, even as it loses popularity, still occupies a place in America’s sports canon. Battuello’s local track, Saratoga, opened a few months before the Gettysburg Address. Battuello grew up watching Affirmed and Seattle Slew’s Triple Crown victories and remembers them on the covers of Sports Illustrated. He knows his chances; it’s why, on multiple occasions, he’s described his fight to me as David versus Goliath.

And of course it’s not a fair fight, but David had to only get lucky once.

American horse racing is a $15 billion industry while Horseracing Wrongs received $8,000 in donations last year and spent most of it on protest supplies. Still, Battuello said their goal is to win “the hearts and minds of average Americans” and in that, they appear to be gaining traction. For the month of August, they rented a billboard on Interstate-90 in Albany that says “Horseracing Kills.” They’ve begun seeking legislative routes, from the Los Angeles City Council, which they had hoped would pass a symbolic motion to oppose horse racing, to a recent meeting in D.C. with an aide to Senator Dianne Feinstein of California. “Our primary message was that this is an industry that cannot be fixed or reformed,” Battuello told me afterwards. He said their greatest challenge is convincing politicians to phase out an industry that employs tens of thousands of people.

“I’m under no illusion it’s going to happen overnight,” Battuello said. “But it’s going to happen.”

Other animal-rights groups have taken notice of his zealotry. Marty Irby, the executive director of Animal Wellness Action, told the Times Union in July, “Horseracing Wrongs is building an army.”

The Man Who Would Kill Horse Racing
Photo: Getty

Battuello’s uncompromising approach sets him apart from many of his fellow animal-lovers. Both Animal Wellness Action and the Humane Society of the United States have sought to reform racing rather than oppose it. Last month, at the Jockey Club’s round table conference, Valerie Pringle of the Humane Society advocated for a bill currently in Congress that would shift drug testing and regulation from the states to a new national authority, saying it would be a “game-changer for an industry that we support.” During Santa Anita’s high-profile crisis, PETA worked with the track’s owner and the California Horse Racing Board to enact new rules and laws.

Kathy Guillermo, PETA’s senior VP, said her group supports Battuello. “His reporting shows that the industry can’t hide behind its meaningless statistics any more,” she said.

“Patrick has said that he won’t work for changes in rules, which we completely understand,” she added. “PETA is also an abolitionist organization. We oppose racing. We also know it’s not ending soon and we feel obligated to end as much of the carnage as we can. So we have chosen to work for changes that will mean less suffering and death—and as a by-product, fewer horses on the track.”

Heather Wilson, a Los Angeles activist who helped secure the meeting with Sen. Feinstein’s office, became part of that Horseracing Wrongs army after joining a protest in March at Santa Anita, where she was manhandled and arrested by track security. (She’s suing the track’s owner, the Stronach Group, on free-speech grounds since, she argues, you can protest on private property if it’s open to the public.) She returned every week for protests, where she and others carried tombstones for all the deceased horses, and she began attending the California Horse Racing Board’s public meetings. She says she’s never been involved in an animal-rights issue that has received this much media attention.

Wilson has been a nurse for almost 30 years, previously in a trauma center and now in the hospital, and she sees the issue through that lens. “In my world, you have to give informed consent before I do anything to you,” she said. “These horses cannot possibly give consent. They’re unwilling participants.”

Meanwhile, while Battuello’s profile has grown in the mainstream media, he’s been almost completely ignored by the industry press. Privately they see him as an enemy and crank. Mark Berner, a longtime racing writer and the managing editor of Horse Race Insider, has claimed that Battuello can’t know what he’s talking about because he refuses to enter a racetrack. Berner told me via email: “He’s never watched the medical team set up the green screen to keep the view from the public and he’s never seen the vet pull out the needle filled with the pink juice that ends life. He probably watched some videos. It’s not the same. I once had a horse die in my arms. Patrick has no clue.”

Berner also claimed that Battuello’s lists are inaccurate and he compared his gruesome obituaries to “far-fetched fiction,” but he didn’t get back to me after I asked for specific examples of exaggeration.

“I can read a necropsy report,” Battuello told me in response to Berner’s dismissal. “I understand how these horses die and the suffering that was involved. I don’t have to be an expert on horsemanship or have a racing background. It’s there, it’s reality, these horses are dying, and there’s nothing they can do to deny it.”

Battuello points out that horse racing’s key metrics are falling. The foal crop, field size, starts per year, and betting handle have been going down for two decades. About three dozen tracks, mostly small but a few with golden pasts, have closed in that time and many more probably would close overnight if they were decoupled from the casinos that now subsidize their purses. There already is a huge contraction under way, and it’s being felt at the tracks with all those claiming races—the places where horses are often at the end of the road or were never fast enough to begin with. Where the carnage is.

Earlier this year, Chris Rossi, a former project manager for Timeform US, pointed out on Twitter that the number of starts represented in the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database, from 2009 to 2018, declined by over 100,000, or more than a third. In that first year, almost 52 percent of starts were horses running for a claiming price of $10,000 or less; within a decade, that had declined to 42 percent.

Meanwhile, the Jockey’s Club race-day fatality rate had declined from 2.0 to 1.68 during that time, which Rossi suggested might have more to do with fewer cheap horses in the population than any safety measures. (In a presentation on the database last year, the Jockey Club’s epidemiologist, Dr. Tim Parkin, highlighted three particular at-risk factors for fatal injuries—presence on the track veterinarian’s list, consecutive months with the same trainer, and previous injuries—that are all hallmarks of claiming races.)

There are two sides to horse racing—what millions of Americans see a few times a year, and then the everyday life of the stables. Racing’s leaders can’t just announce that it’s always been a dangerous, deadly pastime for horses, even though that’s much closer to the truth. And so there’s a behind-the-scenes debate going on over what constitutes an acceptable level of fatalities, over the structure of racing, and over the appropriate response to critics—one that focuses on all the jobs in horse racing instead of the argument that “horses love to run,” the president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California said last month.

In June, the California legislature unanimously passed a bill, which Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law, that gives the California Horse Racing Board the authority to suspend racing licenses at any time, “when necessary to protect the health and safety of the horses or riders that are present at the racing meeting.” But this language is vague enough for Battuello to now ask how many horses must die before the board considers it unsafe for them? The board is made up of racing insiders, too, so making that decision would ultimately call into question its very reason for existence. (Since the law went into effect, at least 18 horses have died at seven different tracks in California.)

There is a worry at some racetracks that a few particularly ugly or highly publicized breakdowns could spell their end. Battuello recently called Belterra Park, a cut-rate track in Cincinnati, to ask about a fatality there. An official confirmed it, Battuello said, “and then added that they had formed two new committees: a medication committee and a safety committee. And [the official] said, ‘The scrutiny is intensifying.’ And it’s all because of Santa Anita.” The truth is, it’s also because of Battuello. There are currently just too many deaths for the public to ignore—which even the industry finally admits—but so long as there are any racehorses dying on America’s tracks, his mornings will still begin with finding their names.

Ryan Goldberg is an award-winning freelance journalist who lives in Brooklyn. His work can be found at his website.