Last year at Churchhill Downs, a 5-year-old mare, responding to a loud sound, reared up, fell, hit its head and had to be euthanized.
It wasn't the sound of the crowd that affected the horse. And it wasn't the sound of the public address system. It was one common sound — a starting gate bell — that prompted the horse to react. One sound out of many.
While Saratoga Springs officials' hearts are in the right place with a proposed amendment to the city’s noise ordinance to limit loud noises that affect horses, they need to give more thought to applying a seemingly simple solution to a complex problem.
Under the proposal, the city would prohibit loud construction noise from beginning before 11 a.m. each morning in areas near the Oklahoma training track.
It’s designed to limit the exposure of horses training at the track in the morning to loud noises like hammering.
Yes, restricting the hours of operation would limit the number of loud sounds, and therefore help reduce incidents of horses being startled and either hurting themselves or their riders. But the proposal also raises other questions about its effectiveness, enforcement and alternative solutions.
First, the city ordinance currently allows construction to begin at 7 a.m., a reasonable start time. Is it fair to builders, roofers, highway crews and homeowners to restrict their work hours so significantly, shaving four hours off a traditional eight-hour workday, for quiet hours for horses? What are they supposed to do during those four hours, hammer softly? Use hand saws instead of circular saws? Use a shovel instead of a jackhammer to dig up pavement?
Second, is the daytime noise curfew enforceable? Who's going to track down the hammer strike that startled that one horse? How will the city even know what sound was responsible? Maybe it was the hammering from a construction site. Or maybe it was a driver honking his horn or a dog barking or an ambulance racing by.
If the horses are the problem, maybe the solution lies there as well. Triple Crown champ American Pharoah is bothered by noise, so he runs with plugs in his ears. If a hyped-up super-horse like that can be calmed by some gauze stuffed in a sock, couldn't other skittish horses? A good pair of horse earplugs can be purchased for about 10 bucks, and many horses can be trained to wear them.
Rather than expanding quiet hours and affecting business, maybe the city could seek voluntary compliance. Put up road signs near the track making people aware of the situation. Send notices to contractors and residents encouraging them to be considerate. Work with trainers on scheduling and sound-deadening equipment.
Getting everyone to be extra quiet for a few extra hours during the day seems like a nice idea. But putting it into law is a different story.
A public hearing on the amendment will be held Aug. 4. Maybe then, we'll hear a better alternative.