As opinions race on fairground plans, some speak up for those that can't: the horses

Thoroughbreds race at the Great Barrington Fairgrounds in September 1967. The specter of the return to racing at the long-dormant fairgrounds has raised concerns about the welfare of horses.

GREAT BARRINGTON — When Claudia d'Alessandro was a little girl, she had an eye for handicapping horses at the Barrington Fair.

"My dad took me, and I would walk around and look at the horses," said d'Alessandro, of Great Barrington. "The bookies would ask, 'What does the kid say?'"

But she also came to understand what happens to some horses when their racing days are done.

"These animals end up in dog food cans and in glue," she said.

Concern about animal welfare surfaced last week after the surprise announcement that a long-dormant racetrack at the fairgrounds might spring back to life.

Suffolk Downs racetrack operator Sterling Suffolk Racecourse announced Wednesday it would enter a long-term lease to refurbish the fairgrounds for thoroughbred racing. While many expressed excitement about the potential economic benefits of racing's revival, opponents raised objections about the practice of running young horses at top speeds for profit, masking injuries with drugs to keep them racing, and all of it causing lameness and death in a cycle that also feeds a slaughter market for horseflesh.

"Gambling AND animal abuse are coming back at once," Bill Dodds posted on Facebook.

Still, critics acknowledge that the majority of thoroughbred owners love their animals and treat them well at a time when the racing industry is taking steps to reduce horse injuries and deaths.

Stats and reasons

In 2017, nearly 1,000 racehorses died of catastrophic injuries at tracks around the country. Year after year, these numbers don't vary much, and the figure does not include off-track deaths related to training and racing, according to Patrick Battuello, who collects the data from tracks and state racing commissions for his blog, "Horseracing Wrongs."

He says all the horse deaths combined could be as high as 2,000 per year.

Last year, the fatal injury rate increased slightly to 1.61 per 1,000 starts from 1.54 per 1,000 starts in 2016, according to The Jockey Club's Equine Injury Database. But the rate has decreased significantly since the database began collecting data in 2009 — a 17 percent to 30 percent drop, depending on the racing surface.

The data also show that shorter race spans had a higher injury rate than longer spans.

Veterinarian Gustavo Abuja, an equine surgeon, said catastrophic injuries often stem from training young thoroughbreds with immature physical structures, and the practice of selecting horses that will run faster at a younger age.

Abuja, whose practice is based in Rhinebeck, N.Y., said it isn't that different from child athletes who push physical limits.

"But humans are repairable," he said, noting the mostly financial factors driving horse euthanasia. "It depends on the owner."

Abuja said massive injuries can also be a matter of physics, when a 1,200-pound horse body — on relatively slender legs — crashes at high speed.

New York state imposed new regulations last year after 18 horses died at Saratoga Race Course, two more than in 2016. Eight died during training, another eight during racing, and two deaths were deemed unrelated to either.

The Suffolk Downs East Boston track has been death-free since 2014, for a total of 17 racing days over the three-year period, according to data it submits to The Jockey Club.

But more racing days mean more deaths.

In 2014, 65 racing days yielded 18 deaths there — an improvement over 2013, when 27 horses died over a period of 81 racing days.

Chip Tuttle, the track's CEO, said though it may never be able to satisfy animal rights activists, the company takes safety and health seriously. He also said Suffolk Downs has worked with the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, which regulates horse racing and veterinary practices, to improve regulations and best practices.

"There are things you can do as an operator to be extra vigilant," he told The Eagle. "The vast majority of horsemen and horsewomen take absolutely great care of the animals in their charge, but we have to worry about the one or two bad apples, so we've tried to really focus on that."

Target: zero

In response to the slew of deaths at Saratoga, New York State's Gaming Commission, with two other racing associations, boosted regulations. They included greater veterinary presence at the track during training, better monitoring of horses, and improving trainers' ability to understand and prevent injuries.

"Our goal is to reduce the number of racehorse deaths and injuries to zero, and we have taken many productive steps toward reaching that goal over the past four years," said Scott Palmer, state's Equine Medical Director.

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission's 2016 veterinary manual says it puts "horses first," for the safety of horse, rider and trainer, for a good return on owner investment, as well as for wagering customers.

"[Horses] retire from the racetrack to productive second careers," it says.

The regulations, for instance, govern anabolic steroids, and a controversial anti-bleeding medication that also causes dehydration. The Gaming Commission has a drug testing laboratory to monitor use and dose.

Unlike the international racing circuit, U.S. racing permits injury-masking, painkilling drugs — something some veterinarians say is the prime cause of catastrophic breakdown.

"Get rid of the drugs," said Sheila Lyons, a sports medicine veterinarian who travels the world consulting with racehorse owners.

Lyons testified in 2012 before Congress about drug abuse in the sport to press for federal legislation to stop "drugging horses up to the limits." She told Congress it amounts to "race fixing through animal abuse."

Before she went to veterinary school more than 30 years ago, Lyons prepared syringes for a Suffolk Downs veterinarian and saw firsthand the way drugs were generously administered at a trainer's request.

Lyons, founder of the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, said data from more than a decade of racehorse necropsy programs show what leads to catastrophic breakdown: pre-existing injuries, like micro fractures that develop when a growing horse does not rest.

"It simply reaches the breaking point, and that can even occur at the walk or the trot, or turning at a slow rate of speed," said Lyons, who also consults with horse owners at Saratoga. "Horses in the morning have been known to shatter just from walking."

Lyons said one way to get that injury and death rate to zero would be CT scans at every track to show injuries that exist before a race, drug use or not.

"The technology is finally here," she said, referring to a prototype designed for this purpose. Once an imaging machine is built, data will be collected from repeated scans of racehorses at two tracks for one year.

But she said she anticipates opposition, and a struggle to raise the $2 million it would cost to build the first such device from a prototype.

"Everyone knows tracks are having a hard time filling their entries," she said.

Other concerns

When horses are too damaged to keep racing, they might end up at a slaughter auction. An estimated 10,000 thoroughbreds are slaughtered in Mexico and Canada every year, mostly to feed a foreign horse meat market, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The group says about 20,000 new thoroughbred foals are born every year.

Tuttle, who owns a retired horse, points to Suffolk Downs' anti-slaughter policy, the first in the U.S., and its "commitment to humane aftercare and retirement." He said he is used to talking about these ethical concerns with his wife and children, who are vegetarians. He said the company works with organizations like Canter New England, which places retired horses, and the Plymouth County Correctional Facility, which has a program for inmates to care for them.

Lyons said it is hard to know where all the horses go after racing because the industry stops tracking them. She said horses could be sold to an intermediary who says one thing then does another.

But one local woman who used to train thoroughbreds on the local fairground track circuit said she saw a lot of responsible race horse owners.

"I was young, and I surrounded myself with people I respected, so I didn't see a lot of the bad side," said Hailey Vadakin. "But not everybody treats their horses well."

Vadakin, a former veterinary assistant who keeps horses on her farm off Alford Road, said she wondered if the negative publicity might stop the plan for the new track here.

"I can 100 percent see both ends, but it's a hard thing to discuss," she added.

Abuja, the veterinarian, said he also understands both sides."The animal can't decide what it's going to do," he said. "They don't really get to choose."

Living profit

After her childhood days handicapping horses, d'Alessandro of Great Barrington went on to become a riding instructor and competitor.

At times, she would buy horses from the track, mostly as an intermediary, in what are called "claiming races," where each horse has a price tag.

She recalled paying anywhere from $500 to $3,000 for a horse. One she bought for herself.

"It was a track of last resort," she said of the fairgrounds. "These are horses that, for whatever reason, can't cut it on a big track. These horses become a throwaway item."

She said while some claimed horses would land in good pasture, others were bought for different reasons. Extreme exertion in young, undeveloped horses had damaged them.

The glue factory would go to the fair and buy the claiming horses.

"It's the equivalent of a tag sale," she added. "The awful part about gambling on something that's alive, is that the thing that is alive becomes a vehicle for profit."

Heather Bellow can be reached at or on Twitter at @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.