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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.

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."

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.

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."

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.

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."

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.