ON AN EARLY FALL day in 2021, race horse Happy Happy B suffered a painful death at the Belmont Park race track on Long Island. As he galloped toward a third place finish, his front legs gave out and he slammed into the dirt track at full speed. Hooves up, the young horse bounced for yards before coming to rest on his left side, his body straddling the finish line.
He tried to rise to his feet, but his legs wouldn’t support the weight. He collapsed back onto the dirt. His jockey, Jose Ortiz, had been thrown over the horse’s head, and lay motionless on the track several yards down. Ortiz recovered from the fall. Happy Happy B was euthanized shortly after.
His unhappy end wasn’t unusual. Horses die nearly every week of racing at Belmont. The most common cause of race horse deaths is a broken limb, followed by euthanasia, said Patrick Battuello, president of the anti-horse racing nonprofit Horseracing Wrongs. The group has tracked horse deaths at every track in the country since 2014.
“They may hit the dirt in an awkward way, or it’s just the exertion of being raced at that speed and their bodies can’t take it,” Battuello told New York Focus. “It’s that cumulative wear and tear on the horse’s body.” Many horses develop arthritis and continue racing through it.
Horse deaths are so common at Belmont that if New York’s state legislature approves Governor Kathy Hochul’s proposal to dedicate $455 million in public funds to renovate the facility, it could become the deadliest track in the country for horses, according to data Horseracing Wrongs shared with New York Focus.
Legislative approval is likely. The Senate’s response to Hochul’s budget proposal, released Tuesday, includes the loan, suggesting that the measure will pass that chamber when it comes to a vote. As of publication, the Assembly had yet to weigh in publicly, but a source with knowledge of the Assembly’s process said that its budget proposal also includes the loan.
At Belmont, data published by the state gaming commission shows that at least 322 horses died between 2014 and 2021, making it the fourth-deadliest track in the country during that timespan.
If the legislature approves Hochul’s loan, the number of horses dying at Belmont would almost certainly increase. That’s because as part of the deal, the Aqueduct racetrack in Queens would shut down, and the races that happen there would move to Belmont. (During the multi-year renovation, Belmont races would move to Aqueduct.)
From 2017 to 2021, Belmont and Aqueduct combined had more deaths than any other track in the country, with 274 horses dying during the five-year span. The next deadliest was Charles Town Races in West Virginia, with 262 deaths. These numbers don’t include horses that die at training facilities, or that are sold to slaughterhouses after their racing careers.
If the rates of death remain constant, nearly 1,000 horses will die at Belmont over the loan’s 20-year term. There could be a slight decrease in death rates due to the New York Racing Association’s plan to build a synthetic track at Belmont, which would be an addition to the existing dirt and turf tracks. Some evidence suggests that synthetic tracks are safer for horses.
Horses often suffer intensely in the time between an injury and euthanasia. “The bones are coming through the skin, the bones are shattered into multiple pieces, the ligaments and tendons are ruptured,” Battuello said.
The racing association, which operates Belmont, Aqueduct, and Saratoga Race Track, argues that horse injuries and deaths are rare, and that they have taken steps in recent years to protect horses. Racing association spokesperson Patrick McKenna sent New York Focus data showing that the vast majority of races and exercises are completed without harm to horses. Documents that McKenna shared also claimed that every horse is inspected by a veterinarian pre-race, and veterinarians or referees can recommend that horses not be allowed to race.
“This record of safe racing is the direct result of NYRA’s commitment to implementing responsible risk mitigation strategies coupled with significant financial investments in racing surfaces and safety protocols informed by data and relevant expertise,” according to the documents McKenna provided to New York Focus.
McKenna did not directly respond to repeated questions on whether death rates at a renovated Belmont track would decrease.
In 2012, following a flurry of 21 horse deaths over four months at Aqueduct, then-Governor Andrew Cuomo convened a task force to make recommendations for improving horse safety. The racing association implemented many of the panel’s recommendations, such as appointing a state equine medical director to oversee race horse health and safety, and instituting more thorough pre-race horse inspections. But the rate of horse deaths at racing association tracks didn’t decrease.
Jockeys often have numerous horses die under them: Happy Happy B was Ortiz’s 11th recorded death in New York racing. He’s seen two more since then.
“There’s only so much you can do by feeling the horse’s leg or watching the horse walk prior to the race,” Battuello said, adding that methods like pre-race CT scans, which could reveal more injuries, would likely cost too much to be practical for the industry.
“Ultimately it’s a business,” he said. “That’s why the numbers aren’t going to change.”
Equine Medical Director Dr. Scott Palmer did not respond to a request for comment.
‘I’m Not Willing to Give That Up’
If Hochul’s proposal goes through, the racing industry would be expected to pay back the loan over two decades. Since racing hasn’t made a profit for years, the industry would use subsidies that it receives from the state to pay back the loan from the state.
This unorthodox arrangement has led several good government groups to criticize the loan in recent weeks. The nonpartisan group Reinvent Albany and the fiscally conservative nonprofit Citizens Budget Commission both called on the legislature to reject the proposal.
“The downstate horse racing industry is already dependent on State subsidies,” Andrew Rein, the Commission’s president, wrote in a letter to legislators. “The State should work toward re-evaluating the entirety of its subsidy arrangement instead of doubling down.”
Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, the state’s chief financial steward, stopped short of saying the loan should be rejected, but wrote that due to the racing association’s “troubled financial past,” the proposal “deserves further scrutiny” from legislators.
The racing association commissioned a study that claims that the loan would pay for itself several times over. But several assertions in the study are highly suspect. For instance, it claims that attendance would increase by 350,000 people per year compared to current attendance at Belmont and Aqueduct, despite the fact that attendance at the two tracks has fallen by one million people per year over the past two decades.
Most of the economic benefit the study projects comes from selling the land Aqueduct sits on for $1 billion. The state already owns that land, and could sell it when the racing association’s lease expires in 2033, without funding a renovation of the Belmont track.
Hochul and the racing association have also pointed to projections of job growth to justify the loan. The study claims that the renovation would generate hundreds of new permanent jobs, in addition to many more temporary construction jobs. But jobs in horse racing are often part time or seasonal, and in an interview with New York Focus, one of the study’s authors said he wasn’t sure how many full-time jobs the renovation would create.
Hochul has repeatedly defended the proposed loan, which is also backed by several Democratic legislators, including the chairs of the Senate and Assembly committees that oversee horse racing.
“The alternative is to have a site that deteriorates, loses value, has a detrimental effect on the surrounding neighborhood,” Hochul said last week. “A lot of people come to New York, spend money here, focus on this, and I’m not willing to give that up.”