NYRA needs to take action

There has been a depressing and mystifyingly concentrated string of horse deaths since racing at Aqu

Just when you thought it was safe to go back on the inner . . .

The New York Racing Association cancelled racing at Aqueduct on Wednesday and Thursday because of bad weather, and Friday’s card was halted after just two races when jockeys expressed concern about higher winds and blowing snow.

Still, that was enough racing to continue what has been a depressing and mystifyingly concentrated string of horse deaths since racing shifted to the inner dirt track on Dec. 10.

Depressing because it just is, and mystifying because, unlike 2012, when it quickly became obvious that inordinate purse increases turned Aqueduct into the Wild West for horsemen with lame animals, there are no obvious answers this time.

But it’s happening.

So shut it down. For now.

And that could very well be the case, at least for today’s card, which as of Friday evening was still on schedule, but likely dependent on the outcome of a meeting that will take place between NYRA and trainers this morning (weather could trump everything again, anyway).

I’m not advocating for the abolition of winter racing in New York, but NYRA needs to step back and try to figure this thing out.

Forget image and public perception, which NYRA is so careful to groom in its

favor. Horses are dying at a ridiculous rate. Thankfully, no jockey has.

The most recent disaster happened in the second race on Friday, when Apex, a 5-year-old gelding, broke down on the backstretch and was euthanized. Another horse in that race, the 10-year-old Italian Rules, was pulled up at the three-eighths pole and vanned off. As it turned out, he suffered a career-ending, but not life-threatening, suspensory injury.

That brought the tally to 11 racing-related fatalities on 20 cards, if you count Friday’s abbreviated one, on the inner dirt.

As usual with anything in racing, this is more complicated than some people want to believe or admit.

It’s easy to say just shut down winter racing in New York, and signs continue to indicate that Aqueduct eventually will close altogether, which is a separate issue.

But winter racing in New York is the lifeblood of plenty of lower-level horsemen and jockeys who have a difficult enough time competing with the Todd Pletchers and Chad Browns of the world without taking away the Aqueduct winter, when most of the big-timers head to Florida. And betting handle on Aqueduct racing continues to be robust, compared to other tracks around the country.

Perhaps it’s 20-20 hindsight, but we could’ve predicted what happened in 2012. With grossly inflated purses on cheap races, horsemen had irresistible incentive to run bad horses for a slice of the pie, then bring them right back for another slice.

In retrospect, the ensuing carnage was predictable. It was at least extensive enough to prompt a response from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who called for an equine safety task force that addressed the problems and devised steps to help prevent future ones.

A mortality review board and the position of equine medical director were established; further measures were implemented last summer when an unusual rash of equine deaths happened at Saratoga Race Course.

After Apex died on Friday, some owners on Twitter questioned whether they would run at Aqueduct.

The New York Thoroughbred Horsemen Association will meet with NYRA officials, including VP of racing operations Martin Panza, VP of facilities and racing surfaces Glen Kozak and track vet

Dr. Anthony Verderosa to “use every avenue possible and examine every angle to address this situation,” NYTHA president Rick Violette said in a statement.

“Everything will be on the table, from finding an independent track surface expert to come in and examine the inner track to a thorough re-examination of every procedure and protocol in place before a horse leaves the starting gate,” Violette said.

That sounds like racing could be halted indefinitely. As it should be.

StarLadies Racing, an offshoot of Starlight Racing, has the morning-line favorite, Hopefaithjoy, in today’s stakes, the Busanda.

I asked Starlight co-managing partner Don Lucarelli of Duanesburg, whose wife, Barbara, is a StarLadies partner, if they had reservations about running Hopefaithjoy.

“We’ll rely on Todd [Pletcher] to answer that question,” Don said. “The horse wouldn’t run if he didn’t think it was safe. We always defer to Todd; that’s what we pay him good money for.”

I asked Joe Cacciolfi of Schen­ectady the same question.

He co-bred a 3-year-old filly, Saratoga Smoke, who is scheduled to make her career debut in the third race on Sunday. I’ve known Joe for close to three decades and paid several visits to Saratoga Smoke’s dam, Toga Tiger, when she was pregnant with her first foal on a farm in Ballston Spa. You get attached.

“Toga Tiger broke her maiden in the winter, in the cold [at Aqueduct],” said Cacciolfi, who bought back in for a small share of Saratoga Smoke with the owners, Double Onions Stable LLC.

“This horse is the spitting image of her mother. You hate to see any horse break down, but you’d really hate it if it’s a homebred. So there’s some reservations. If [trainer] Bruce [Brown] calls Sunday morning and says he doesn’t think we should run, I don’t think anybody’s going to argue.”

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