It’s not the hardest job facing those tasked with making sure that racehorses don’t die.
The making-sure-they-don’t-die part, of course, is the hardest.
And, in fact, that’s impossible.
But organizations like the New York State Gaming Commission, the state’s Equine Safety Review Board and the New York Racing Association face another tall order, and that’s keeping their sport attractive and relevant.
One way to do that is to convince the public that they’re doing everything they can to prevent horses from suffering catastrophic injuries.
What sabotages that effort is when a horse like the 2-year-old colt Ludicrous breaks down on the biggest day of the Saratoga Race Course meet, Travers Day.
Beautiful day. Huge crowd. A great card of racing.
In one of NYRA’s worst nightmares, Ludicrous broke his leg near the sixteenth pole at the end of the fourth race and grotesquely tried to stumble his way to his feet right in front of horrified fans in the grandstand last Saturday.
It was a gut-wrenching contrast, the cloth screens going up to block the view of Ludicrous being euthanized and dragged onto the horse ambulance, not far from the winner’s circle where Bayerd and his happy trainer and owner got their picture taken.
Ludicrous was trained by Mechanicville native Chad Brown, who could only helplessly run out onto the track to check on his fallen horse.
“It might happen on a big day here and there and get a lot of press, but I can tell you, training a lot of horses at a lot of different locations, that it’s very, very rare, not only in my barn, but everywhere,” Brown said on Friday morning.
Even if that’s true, the recent rash of dead horses at Saratoga — 10 on the grounds either in racing or training since the meet started — only underscores how difficult it is for racing to shed the image held by some that it’s an abusive pursuit.
And that must explain why the gaming commission believed that it was necessary to release a two-page statement by equine medical director Dr. Scott Palmer on Friday afternoon, with still three days left in the meet.
The statement outlines some safety protocols that were already in progress but not previously publicized, and announced some new ones that could address the source of some of the deaths that have happened at Saratoga recently.
Besides the written statement, Dr. Palmer struck me as an extremely passionate and caring professional during a phone conversation later.
It’s important and a challenge to differentiate for the public how these various deaths happened so that people realize that they’re not all attributable to the same cause.
People could hear “10 racing deaths” and make all kinds of assumptions. But whether it’s a breakdown, a heart attack or a dumb-luck “one-in-a-million thing” like a loose horse crashing into a rail, it’s still a dead horse deserving of equal consideration, Palmer said.
“We don’t want them to believe that we’re parsing it like that,” he said. “Even one is important to me, no matter how it happens. It’s personal with me.
“I was upset about a comment recently that said the horse doesn’t have a voice. We’re doing everything we can do. The North Star for me is to be an unconditional advocate for the horse.”
Saratoga is different from most racetracks in North America.
Its history, grace and charm would seem enough to shield it from any bad news and ugliness, but that simply isn’t true and never was.
I’m convinced that there isn’t a racing jurisdiction that tries harder than New York to address racehorse safety, even if that’s partly motivated by self-interest in a state that reaps billions in revenue from the sport.
But there are a lot of people out there who aren’t convinced.
And after Saturday, probably fewer still, no matter what noble, diligent measures New York takes.