At a time when the racing industry has what many believe to be its darkest hours in a century, there has been a call for more transparency from all industry stakeholders and their regulators.
So, it appears to be a bit counterintuitive for newly released data in the California Horse Racing Board’s (CHRB) Annual Report to cause a little dustup. The report, which is subtitled, “A Summary of Fiscal Year 2018–19 Revenue and Calendar Year 2019 Racing in California,” introduces new information. Namely, a listing of trainers whose horses have died.
In other words, it names names.
Pages 25 – 27 of the report list the findings of trainers and associated deaths for each, including whether the death(s) occurred in the following categories: racing, training, or other. Also provided are the total number of starts, broken down by breed, and the number of deaths per 1,000 starts, which is the industry standard for publicizing this type of data at a track level.
This list was undoubtedly spawned by the public outcry over the equine catastrophic breakdowns at Santa Anita last year. The CHRB report highlights all the steps it has taken to address the equine fatality rate, along with further recommendations in the pipeline.
So, what is this dustup about?
Byron King wrote a BloodHorse piece called, “CHRB Report on Equine Fatality Rates Criticized,” stating:
“Alan Balch, executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, questioned the validity of the statistics.
"Let's remember that this data was released in the name of 'transparency,' which is a laudable goal of the California Horse Racing Board—but must be treated very carefully because it's in need of further analysis and refinement," he emphasized in an email. "Transparency needs to be joined with context: this is really data on accidents."
He pointed out the possibilities that can lead to a horse perishing, some of which are not exclusive to horses on the racetrack. These fatalities typically fell in the CHRB's broad training and "other" categories.
"To tie a total number for a trainer to 'starts,' can be very misleading," Balch wrote.”
I’ve selected a few choice paragraphs from another BloodHorse piece, this one by Jay Hovdey, called, “On Racing: CHRB's Dubious Calculations No Casual Matter”:
“The ratios listed in the ‘Per 1,000 Starts’ column are ridiculous, based on small, mathematically meaningless samples. And yet, they are indelibly attached to the names of actual licensees in good standing, trying to run a business in a highly regulated climate under the microscope of public scrutiny—fatality rates based on a theoretical 1,000 starts that might take years to accumulate.
“… On and on the table went, attaching the dubiously calculated rates to a host of familiar names in what appeared to be a ham-handed attempt at public shaming. Rick Baedeker, CHRB executive director, justified the presentation as one of the proactive measures of transparency promised to the board's Sacramento overlords in this era of heightened scrutiny.
“’We're just reporting facts when it comes to fatalities in this day and age," Baedeker said. "We're not attaching any responsibility. It's a challenge for us to stay mindful that we represent the State of California. We're not a marketing arm of the industry.’”
First, kudos to the CHRB for taking this important step in making publicly available (and easily accessible) what most everyone would agree is important information. We must remember that the CHRB is a state agency. They are not, as Mr. Baedeker says, “a marketing arm of the industry.” They have a responsibility to make important information available to the public. Few would argue that information regarding horse deaths is not important.
I don’t dismiss all the criticism leveled at the CHRB regarding its presentation of equine deaths by trainer. I don’t agree, however, with the charges of “public shaming.” The facts are the facts.
I’ll now suggest a way, moving forward, to present this data in a more meaningful way.
In my opinion, the main drawback of this data is limited numbers. I think everyone would agree that the smaller the sample size, the greater the possible distortion in drawing conclusions for each trainer. That could be easily remedied. Just two months ago in a Horse Racing Reform blog post called, “Moving forward: Here are three programs that are worth emulating,” I complimented the CHRB’s best-in-the- industry postmortem examination program that began in 1990.
The CHRB has the ability to produce a similar list going back years if not decades. What if the list that was published considered a five- or 10-year period? One might argue that the numbers for each trainer would still be relatively small. This would be true, but the data would be that much more meaningful — by a factor of five or 10.
The CHRB could publish this information soon. There is no need to wait until next year to provide multi-year data. In each of its annual reports moving forward, it could provide the information for the past year, in addition to accumulated data over a number of years.
Ideally, not only should every state follow California’s lead, but they should pool this data in a common database. We all know that most trainers race horses in more than one state. The larger the pool of data, the more relevant it becomes.
We all say we want transparency.
So, let’s make it happen in a meaningful way.