A rash of equine fatalities on Saratoga Race Course grounds over a recent five-day period has prompted state racing officials to look closer at the deaths and consider some new safety steps to go with measures already being developed.
From Aug. 21-25, three horses died as a result of injuries while racing, including the grisly scene on Travers Day last Saturday when 2-year-old colt Ludicrous broke down in front of a crowd of over 46,000.
Another horse, Kamarius, was injured Aug. 23, vanned off and euthanized following a workout on the Oklahoma training track.
Off the grounds, the filly Elena Strikes broke down while breezing on the training track at Belmont Park last Sunday and had to be put down.
In June, state equine medical director Dr. Scott Palmer implemented a new study of sudden death syndrome, which was the cause of three of the 10 fatalities at Saratoga since the 146th meet began July 18.
Including three deaths at Belmont Park, 13 have occurred at New York Racing Association tracks since the start of the meet.
In a release from the state Gaming Commission, Palmer said the state has made significant progress in curtailing injuries and inappropriate drug use, but “the job of equine safety is never done. There will be challenges along the way. We are experiencing such a challenge during the 2014 Saratoga meet.”
That challenge came to a head last week. Three-year-old filly M B and Tee won a race Aug. 21 and collapsed and died due to an apparent cardiovascular attack during the gallop-out. Meanwhile, 7-year-old gelding Makari died when he broke his spine falling over the final fence of the New York Turf Writers Cup steeplechase stakes race Monday.
And Ludicrous, a promising horse making his career debut for trainer Chad Brown of Mechanicville, took a bad step while banging into Today’s Agenda in the stretch and broke his right front leg.
“You never want that to happen, ever, even if there’s one person here,” said Martin Panza, NYRA’s vice president of racing operations. “You do what you can to make sure it doesn’t.”
“It’s a terrible feeling,” Brown said Friday morning. “You don’t want it to happen anytime, let alone on a big day like Travers Day, where there’s a lot of people [for] who maybe that’s the only day they attend the races. You don’t want to put that sight in their minds.
“But it’s a freak thing, and you hope people understand that it’s a real rarity in our sport.”
It hasn’t been nearly enough of a rarity at Saratoga lately. Since the state started keeping an equine injury database in 2009, 2014 already marks the second-most racing fatalities during a Saratoga meet. There were eight in 2012.
Last year, Saratoga ran 420 races and averaged one fatality per 84 races. Through Monday, when the steeplechaser Makari died, the track was averaging one fatality per 49.7 races.
It’s a development that’s particularly vexing for NYRA and the Gaming Commission because Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered the formation of a Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety in 2012 in response to an unusual spate of fatalities at Aqueduct. Task force recommendations, including the creation of Palmer’s position, have had an impact in making the tracks safer.
“I can tell you that all the recommendations are in place, but very few of them can you check off as done,” Palmer said Friday afternoon. “Is it perfect? No. Are we responsive? Yes. It’s an ongoing process, and part of the job is auditing your own job.”
Sudden death syndrome, the catch-all term for the type of cardiovascular attacks that claimed M B and Tee, 2-year-old colt Sir William Bruce on Aug. 2 and 4-year-old colt Regretless on Aug. 11, was already being studied before the meet began. One goal is to develop a means of determining beforehand if a horse is more susceptible to such an attack.
The track surface itself is also closely monitored for consistency and safety. New steps will be taken, though, in response to some of the deaths.
Besides the two racing deaths due to leg injuries and the three sudden death syndrome cases, three horses died after collisions with a steeplechase fence (Makari) or a rail (Lavender Road and Double Gold). Lavender Road was a gate scratch who collapsed and broke her neck on a horsepath rail on her way back to the barn, while Double Gold got loose during training, tried to run off the track and fell over a rail, suffering a lumbar fracture.
The Gaming Commission and NYRA will look at ways to make rails, steeplechase hurdles and gaps off the track safer, Palmer said.
“We will leave no stone unturned in our efforts to identify the causes of death in all racing fatalities in New York,” Palmer’s statement concluded.