Seven years ago, the New York State Gaming Commission undertook a daunting mission: to locate every New York-bred Thoroughbred that raced between 2010 and 2012 and didn’t race after 2012.
A year later, in 2016, the Commission released its findings. The number of horses that fit the criteria was 3,894. The Commission was able to locate 1,871, or 48% of them. The other 2,023 couldn’t be located.
One of the motivations for beginning the project was to determine how money the New York Thoroughbred industry needs to support its retired racehorses.
“But we couldn’t do that without knowing how many horses we were talking about,” said Lee Park, the Commission’s deputy executive director for public engagement and information, this week.
Characterizing the project as “to some degree successful, to a lot of degrees unsuccessful,” Park also said that the Commission learned a lot even from what they were unable to discover.
More New York-breds (313) in that two-year period ran their last race at Finger Lakes than at any other track in the country. Finger Lakes was followed by Aqueduct Racetrack (221), Belmont Park (201), and Mountaineer Racetrack. Last on the list was Saratoga Race Course, where 58 of the horses raced last.
The Commission was most successful in finding horses that had last raced at Aqueduct, Belmont, or Saratoga and located between 43 and 47 percent of the horses that had finished their careers at those tracks. They could find only 25% of the horses that had raced last at Finger Lakes.
The majority of the located horses (604) had been retired as broodmares; another 422 were retired to second careers, while 327 were characterized as “simply retired.” Others were adopted or were standing as stallions. Three were confirmed to have been sold at auction, and 356 had died.
The Commission’s mission statement asserts that, “The Commission strives to ensure that all stakeholders in the gaming and horse racing industries, including the consumers who wager on activities regulated or operated by the Commission, are treated in an equitable and responsible manner and to promote the health and safety of horses and all participants in racing” (emphasis mine).
Yet the Commission, like the newly established federal Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, has no remit to regulate horses once they are no longer racing. Both the Commission and HISA are governmental entities created by law, and any authority they have is legally limited.
Park attended last week’s Racing and Gaming Conference in Saratoga, and he pointed to a comment made by Ed Martin, the president of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, during a panel on HISA.
“He talked about the roles of regulators,” said Park. “Technically, regulators are not part of the industry. They are taxpayer-funded and part of the government. That said, we can certainly bring people together and promote the issue of aftercare and point people in the right direction. Aftercare doesn’t directly fit into the Gaming Commission charges, but we believe that it should be promoted and paid attention to.”
He also said that reviving the project would make sense, given how much has changed in the aftercare landscape over the last six years.
“The Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance was a needed step to move the ball forward,” he said, referring to the non-profit organization that accredits and funds retirement and retraining facilities in the United States. “In 2015, New York had four accredited organizations. Now we have 10.
“The infrastructure that was burgeoning back then has now been built, and it’s a good opportunity to do that research again, to try to find New York-breds that haven’t raced in the last few years.”
Should the Commission begin a second phase of inquiry, it will have the 2016 report to use as a baseline and from which to measure improvement. Commission executive director Rob Williams has admitted that tracking down horses was more of a challenge than the Commission had anticipated, and it will have more information sources at its disposal than it did six years ago.
But one important factor that may not have changed is who is willing to do the work to ensure horses’ safe retirement. At the end of the 2016 meeting, Kirby Wycoff made explicit what was evident to everyone in the room. An academic researcher, mental health clinician, and horse owner, she looked around the venue, in which several dozen people were seated.
“When I was at the [yearling sales] in this pavilion [earlier this month],” she said, “this was a full house. If you look around, there are a lot of empty seats. I think this is part of our problem. We came here today because we care about this issue, but we need to bring more people to the table.
“Until we get a better handle on how the systems [in place] can communicate with one another and how we can understand this need and systematically respond to it, we’re going to continue to see empty seats, and I think that’s part of where our focus needs to be.”
As Wycoff made clear, hundreds and hundreds of people are willing to show up to pay premium prices for yearling Thoroughbreds. Only when those same people show up to conversations about horses at the other end of their careers, when events devoted to aftercare are also standing room only, when responsibility for horses is accepted and embraced by far more people in the racing industry, can we begin to talk about progress and success.