03/29/2012 2:29PM

Crist: Home-brewed stats skew Times analysis


“Mangled Horses, Maimed Jockeys,” a 6,400-word article splashed across the front-page of last Sunday’s New York Times, might have been a fair and useful piece of investigative journalism had it stuck to its scope: Rates of equine injuries and fatalities at some tracks, particularly Quarter Horse venues in the Southwest, are alarmingly high. There also are legitimate questions about the quality of oversight and regulation in an era when some of these tracks are operated by casino companies whose primary interest in racing is to secure licenses for their slot-machine operations.

The article, however, went well beyond that, generalizing about an entire industry with broad and unsupported strokes. Much worse, the paper then published a self-congratulatory editorial two days later, titling it “Horses to the Slaughter” and calling racing a “disreputable” industry whose participants have little regard for the welfare of its horses and riders. The editorial, written with the teary outrage of an 8-year-old who has just learned that ponies don’t live forever, states that the “real pillars” of racing are “the casual and continued mistreatment of vulnerable, overmedicated and ultimately disposable athletes.”

Much of the Times’s overreaching conclusions stem from a proprietary analysis of supposed breakdowns, based on a computer analysis of comments in results charts. I knew something had gone badly awry with its analysis when I saw that Saratoga Race Course – by all previous measures one of the safest tracks in the world – had clocked in with 5.6 breakdown “incidents” per 1,000 starts over the last three years, above the national average in its survey.

Jeff Scott, a knowledgeable racing writer for the track’s hometown paper, The Saratogian, manually went through the same results charts for the last three years, and counted only 25 such incidents compared to theTimes’s 53.  He theorized that The Times had included horses leaving the course in steeplechase races but The Times on Thursday denied including such cases.

The Times resorted to brewing its own statistics because of the lack of reliable historical data. Racing indeed has until recently been negligent in keeping such records. Yet a discrepancy of this magnitude regarding the premier race meet in American racing calls the accuracy of the entire analytical undertaking into question.

Even if these rates were correct, they exist in a vacuum without a comparison point to 5, 10 or 20 years ago. Nobody knows if the situation is the same, better or worse than at any other time in history, but that is an inconvenient fact in the broader narrative The Times has been trying to tell for almost a decade now: that the sport is barbaric and its participants are crooked and uncaring.

Facts to the contrary, the paper’s coverage has consistently suggested that the deaths of Barbaro and Eight Belles were the result of a culture of drugs and neglect rather than regrettable but unpreventable accidents; that Big Brown lost the Triple Crown because of steroid usage rather than a common hoof problem that came at an inopportune time; and that the federal government must come riding in on its own white horses to save the sport from itself and its incompetent overlords.

Politicians wasted no time jumping on the Times article to attempt to revive their grandstanding calls for federal intervention.

Racing “has reached an alarming level of corruption and exploitation,” thundered Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, without documenting any actual corruption, much less any efforts he has made to improve the obviously underfunded regulation of racing in the state he represents.

“The doping of injured horses and forcing them to compete is deplorable and must be stopped,” said Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky, who is trying to revive his and Udall’s failed 2008 bill that would put racing under the control of the Food and Drug Administration and ban the use of therapeutic raceday medications. It is unclear at best that either of those steps would improve equine welfare or racing safety.

The racing industry’s official response to the Times article has been disappointingly timid. A statement from the National Thoroughbred Racing Association called it “sobering,” a particularly poor word choice implying that the industry has been drunkenly turning a blind eye to the familiar issues the article addressed. The statement concluded with an odd internal call for all industry participants to “consider all options for enacting nationwide reform in a more comprehensive, lasting way,” which many will read as an invitation to Federal intervention.

Racing should react more swiftly and forcefully to these assaults on its very existence and do a better job of explaining the efforts it is making to improve the sport and take care of its horses. It’s pretty clear that if racing doesn’t stand up for itself, nobody else will.