A culture at the New York Racing Association that placed money above the safety of its racing horses is described in a report released Friday by the New York Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety, which was commissioned after a rash of horse deaths at the Aqueduct Race Track.
The Task Force was assigned to look at 21 deaths that occurred on Aqueduct’s inner track between December 2011 and March 18, 2012. No one cause was blamed for the deaths, with the thick report ordered by Gov. Andrew Cuomo spreading blame to a combination of factors.
The report highlights three glaring problems: Veterinary oversight that was directed by NYRA officials, whose main focus was large fields of horses that would generate increased gambling; money generated by video lottery terminals at Aqueduct underwrote high purses that encouraged substandard horses to race; and the use of steroids masked certain injuries from pre-race inspection.
According to the report, 11 of the 21 fatalities may have been preventable.
The report did not conclude that illegal drugs were responsible for the deaths, even though task force members conceded they couldn’t be certain because of inadequate testing.
Task Force Chairman Dr. Scott Palmer described the factors as a “perfect storm.”
“As an industry we all have to look in the mirror,” Palmer said, referring to breeders, trainers, racing officials, jockeys, state overseers and veterinarians. “We all have to take responsibility.”
NYRA’s responsibilities recommended by the report include creating an independent veterinary structure whose only priority will be safety; establishing a health and safety committee; and considering the implementation of a synthetic surface for Aqueduct, a controversial proposition.
The New York State Racing and Wagering Board will create a new branch to oversee horse safety and implement new claiming prices, drug testing practices and drug regulations. The drug regulations, which will go into place in the next two weeks, include prohibiting administering certain steroids leading up to a race, which make it possible to hide the severity of a horse’s injury.
It is likely that almost all of these changes can be implemented administratively, without any state legislation.
The racing board began to respond to the deaths in April with an emergency claiming rule that set up a restrictive formula for what races horses could enter. The rule reduced the possibility of horses being entered in races for which they weren’t qualified, which could result in serious injury or death.
After this rule was implemented, the spike in deaths subsided at Aqueduct. There was not an unusual number of deaths at Belmont’s spring meet and there were only a handful of deaths at this summer’s Saratoga Race Course meet.
NYRA has been criticized for using video lottery terminal revenue to increase the purse sizes on all races.
Because of the higher purses, Task Force member Alan Foreman, chairman and CEO of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, said horses were being viewed as disposable commodities. Prior to the emergency claiming rule, he said there was an unprecedented level of claiming, as trainers and owners were enticed by large purses they could win with comparatively cheap horses.
“That did partially fix the problem,” Foreman said of the drop in deaths following the new rule.
He and other industry professionals are also hopeful the new drug policies will ensure healthy horses are racing, instead of allowing the masking of symptoms in unhealthy horses.
NYRA Board member John Hendrickson, who stressed that even one horse death is too many and was pleased with the report, said the changes will lead to a cleaner and safer racing industry in New York. “Sounds like a great day for racing and an even better day for our horses,” he said.
Hendrickson was particularly pleased with the stricter drug regulations and the shifting oversight for the veterinarians. He added that the governor should be commended for his leadership on this issue.
New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association President Richard Violette noted that most of the medication reform advocated in the report had been included in his group’s five point plan from April.
NYRA President Ellen McClain said they were ready to embrace these new practices, but said the safety record at Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga is generally among the best in the industry.
According to statistics from the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database, the number of horse deaths per start from 2004 to 2011 at NYRA track’s were below the national average in 2011.
In reviewing the report on Friday, Task Force members criticized NYRA for not changing its veterinarian practices on its own initiatives and acknowledged that the state racing board dropped the ball in some areas of its health oversight. Palmer said there was no overt policy to fill fields at all costs, but said there was significant economic pressure.
The completion of the report took longer than planned, as the task force was focused on building a consensus and had numerous internal discussions, according to Palmer. The governor’s office has had the report for weeks, but its release was delayed due to scheduling conflicts, typographical errors and other minor obstructions. Palmer stressed that there were no substantive changes to the report in the last month.
The full report, its recommendations and reactions can be found on the Capital Region Scene at www.dailygazette.com.