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24 horse fatalities during Arizona's Turf Paradise racing season raise concerns

Turf Paradise is making headlines for the wrong reasons early in the horse racing season. Since Nov. 5, 24 horses have died at the north Phoenix track, including 11 while racing, a track spokesman confirmed.

The death rate is nearly twice the national number in 2020, Dr. Susan Gale, Arizona state veterinarian, told the Arizona Racing Commission earlier this month.

The alarming death rate at Turf Paradise is in stark contrast to recent trends in the sport.

Turf Paradise has experienced a death rate of 2.98 horses per 1,000 race starts, according to the statistics Gale provided to the Racing Commission. That’s more than twice the national average of 1.41 per 1,000 starts in 2020, said Natalie Voss, who writes for the horse racing publication Paulick Report.

Deaths are measured on a basis of per 1,000 race starts, which indicates that a horse suffered a fatal injury while actively racing. The metric measuring overall deaths at a track is referred to as “deaths per 1,000.”

Vincent Francia, general manager of Turf Paradise, said it’s important to have perspective when considering deaths at the track. He told Cronkite News that 11 of the 24 fatalities were racing deaths, five happened during training and eight occurred in the barn area and were not related to racing or training.

“Losing one horse is one too many, of course,” Francia said.

While raising eyebrows within the horse racing community, Turf Paradise’s deaths also have caught the attention of animal rights activists, and one activist argues that doping is contributing to the problem.

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In a statement regarding the track’s troubles, Marty Irby, executive director of Animal Wellness Action said, “The (24) equine deaths at Turf Paradise are heartbreaking and underscore the horse racing industry’s urgent need for reform as the body count continues to climb.

“The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) – created by the new federal law, the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, that takes effect in July of this year – should immediately re-engage in negotiations with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to begin implementing the national drug testing standards the law we worked so hard to pass requires.

“Doping horses leads to death, and it is no secret that countless horse deaths have been caused by overuse and abuse of medication. If American horse racing is to survive, and tracks like Turf Paradise want to continue operating, then it’s time for rehab to begin.”

Horse racing in Arizona is regulated by the Arizona Gaming Commission, which is taking steps to address the issue. The Thoroughbred Daily News reported that the commission will begin requiring horsemen to submit updated veterinary records for all horses. And the commission is requesting funds to hire an additional veterinarian, the report said.

It isn’t the first time that Turf Paradise has experienced a spike in equine fatalities. Twenty-seven race-related deaths were reported at the track in 2017 and 2018, according to a 2019 Cronkite News report. Other tracks have also had problems, including California’s Santa Anita Park, which reported 23 race fatalities during its 2018-19 schedule.

“It’s an issue throughout the industry,” said Maxwell Hartgraves of the Arizona Gaming Commission. “We’re working closely with (Turf Paradise) to try and resolve the issue, because it’s not one single thing that points towards horse fatality. There’s a variety of things that go into it. There’s not one point or one issue that causes these things.”

So far, the spike in racing deaths hasn’t altered the Turf Paradise racing schedule. And although the gaming commission doesn’t speculate on how issues such as horse fatalities might impact attendance or wagering, Hartgraves said the commission is invested in the overall health of the sport and those participating in it – from the horses to jockeys.

“We’re working with our stakeholders trying to find ways to address this issue and prioritize the safety of the horses and the equine athletes,” Hartgraves said.

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Jake Goodrick/Cronkite News

The deaths of 24 horses during Turf Paradise’s current racing season has raised concern because the number is much higher than the national average.