The Saratoga Summer
All it took was one look at Rumba’s stall door to grab Hugh Gallagher’s attention.
The 3-year-old filly lacked the bold red-and-white ‘horse in today’ sign required to be posted on the stalls of all thoroughbreds scheduled to run at the Saratoga Race Course on any given day. And the absence of one for Rumba — a horse set to run in the third race Wednesday — was an easy catch for the man New York Racing Association President Chris Kay introduced last week as sheriff of the backstretch.
An assistant for veteran trainer Dale Romans shrugged and said he wasn’t sure where to pick up the signs. But the excuse didn’t resonate with Gallagher, NYRA’s new safety steward.
“Consider this your first and last warning,” he sternly told the assistant. “I’m not trying to be hard on you, but I’ve got to be fair.”
Fair means applying the same standard to all horsemen at the meet, Gallagher later explained. Fair means ensuring all of them are following regulations intended to make the meet at Saratoga safe and equitable — a goal that often requires Gallagher to sweat the small stuff.
The ‘horse in today’ signs are a simple example. They easily denote stalls that may need to be quickly identified by a veterinarian in the event of an injured horse; or the ones that should only be accessed by a select few individuals before a race.
A missing sign could spell problems later, or it could be indicative of a pattern. Maybe a trainer is keeping a sloppy stable; or maybe there’s something bigger going on behind the scenes.
Of the roughly 2,000 people in the backstretch caring for an estimated 3,000 thoroughbreds stabled at Saratoga’s sprawling grounds, Gallagher figures there is 98 percent compliance with NYRA’s rules.
“We’re dealing with less than 2 percent in violation,” he said. “But that 2 percent makes it unsafe for the other 98 percent.”
Gallagher is the first safety steward operating at a track east of the Mississippi. His job supports the mission of the track’s other stewards — individuals working for either NYRA or the state to ensure races are run in compliance with pages of regulations. But he also brings a veteran presence to the backstretch with an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the equine industry.
Gallagher’s experience in the business includes overseeing nine jurisdictions, 17 tracks and more than 55,000 races over the course of more than three decades. His résumé includes serving as chairman of the Racing Officials Accreditation Program’s board of directors, chairman of the Association of Racing Commissioners International’s education committee, the former executive director of the Delaware Harness Racing Commission and recipient of the 2013 Len Foote Award — the highest honor bestowed on racing regulators in North America.
In a sense, Gallagher is both an educator and an investigator. Though his eyes are constantly scanning for anything awry at the track or with its horses, he’s also there to coach anyone in the backstretch unsure or unfamiliar with the rules.
With no national industry standard, the regulations governing horse racing can vary subtly from state to state. At a meet that draws some of the best thoroughbreds from around the globe, the discrepancies can cause a number of honest mistakes among trainers visiting New York for the first time.
The affable Gallagher’s demeanor is courteous and deliberately unassuming in the backstretch — something that allows him to make his rounds each morning with a degree of anonymity. His day starts with spot checks to ensure the proper horse is in the stall listed on a sheet printed daily by the track’s quartermaster.
The checks are simple, involving a groom or stable hand pulling back the lip of a stabled horse to display an identifying tattoo. But they also allow Gallagher a chance to scan the stall or anything suspicious, whether it be contraband tucked in a grooming tote or a horse appearing sickly or injured.
“They are many and we are few,” he said of the horsemen he oversees. “The key is not being predictable. Not being predictable is a great advantage.”
He’s a liaison between the backstretch and the stewards who monitor the races from the grandstand. NYRA steward Braulio Baeza Jr. said Gallagher’s experience gives him comfort that the backstretch is secure and that there’s a go-to guy to assist him if something goes awry during a race.
“Basically, I know the back end is being patrolled by an experienced person,” he said. “Just having him back there is a deterrent.”
Gallagher was hired in April on the advice of Martin Panza — NYRA’s recently hired senior vice president of racing operations — at a time when racing fatalities were down at the state’s three thoroughbred tracks. Racing fatalities dropped from an average of 2.2 per 1,000 starts in 2012 to 1.3 per 1,000 starts last year, an improvement NYRA officials credited to an increased level of risk management and the standardization of pre-race protocols.
The 2013 meet, however, was marred by several thoroughbreds euthanized on track after suffering racing injuries. The fatalities were followed seven months later by a damning video of what appeared to be abuse in Saratoga’s backstretch released by the activist group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Taken secretly, the video appears to show workers under famed trainer Steve Asmussen abusing thoroughbreds and administering drugs to horses for nonmedical reasons. The video prompted an investigation by the state Gaming Commission that is ongoing, according to a spokesman with the agency.
Gallagher’s aim as safety steward is twofold: To keep horses at NYRA tracks safe and to ensure the betting public that the association’s races are run by the book. At Saratoga, he’s tasked with raising the bar for a meet that already has high standards.
“We’ve got a very high level of racing here,” he said. “And we want to keep it that way.”