SARATOGA SPRINGS — A jump in the equine fatality rate in the early going of the Saratoga race meet is bringing the issue of horse safety into the spotlight once again this year.
Two horses — Angels Seven and Brooklyn Major — were fatally injured while racing, and the other five deaths occurred during workout hours, beginning with the Chad Brown-trained Lakalas on May 28 at the Oklahoma training track, where the New York Racing Association conducts training from April through early November.
Each year since 2009, anywhere from nine to 16 horses have died on Saratoga grounds.
The recent flurry of deaths included Angels Seven, who was injured while racing on the inner turf course last Friday; Positive Waves and Howard Beach on the main track during training hours Saturday; and Brooklyn Major, who collapsed after the finish of the ninth race Monday and died of what is suspected to have been a cardiovascular attack, according to the New York State Gaming Commission database on equine injuries and deaths.
NYRA, which operates racing year-round at Saratoga Race Course, Belmont Park and Aqueduct Racetrack, reiterated its commitment to human and equine safety.
"We take the health and welfare of our equine athletes and jockeys seriously," NYRA spokesman Patrick McKenna said. "That's why we've made significant improvements and enhancements to the facility with an eye on improving the quality and safety of our racing operations."
This spring, NYRA added clay and sand to the cushion that sits under the dirt main track.
The organization Horseracing Wrongs, whose mission is to see horse racing abolished, held a protest across the street from the track on the first Saturday of the meet, July 30.
In a blog post on the group's website, they cite a Daily Racing Form account of two of the equine fatalities: " 'Two horses suffered fatal injuries while training over Saratoga’s main track Saturday morning, while another horse suffered a non-life-threatening injury during Friday’s Curlin Stakes, leaving horsemen and racing officials searching for answers.' Allow me to save them time: Horseracing kills horses, lots of them; what’s more, there’s nothing they can do to stop it."
All of the surfaces are monitored daily for factors like cushion depth and moisture content.
Glen Kozak, NYRA's vice president of racing surfaces, works in consultation with Dr. Mick Peterson, a University of Maine professor who serves as executive director of the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory. He said sometimes there is a spike in fatalities at the beginning of a meet as the horse population shifts from one track to another.
Part of the pre-meet surface preparation is to examine soil condition at Belmont Park and try to re-create it at Saratoga to help smooth the shift from regular training and racing at one track to another.
"You lose the fine material in the winter because of the weather, so when we target the composition for Saratoga, we don't want there to be a big transition," Peterson said. "The consistent curveball, which is not exclusive to Saratoga, is rain. The challenge this year was it rained, then it quit. They look at the rainfall, it's logged every 15 minutes 24 hours a day, and it's matched up with the workout times."
Recent improvements at Saratoga — which is through 11 racing days — include upgraded drainage to promote an even, consistent surface, a widened Oklahoma training track to reduce traffic congestion for horses and alarm systems to alert people of a loose horse.
"Frankly, everyone keeps them to the task," trainer Rick Violette said. "It's not like everybody crosses their fingers and hopes they're doing it. Glen Kozak loses sleep over this stuff, and in a lot of cases it's because we're waking him up. There's never a good answer. There's never a satisfactory reason. It's not like we find a hole out there and say, 'Ta-da!' Those are the things that are most frustrating, when you can't pinpoint and explain."
Violette trained Howard Beach, who broke his right front leg during a main track workout Saturday. The horse was euthanized on the track.
The other fatalities were Queen B, who hurt her right rear leg on the Oklahoma on July 6 and was euthanized after being taken to the Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Saratoga Springs, and Wanztbwicked, who was injured July 22 on the main track.
There were 16 fatalities at Saratoga last year, seven of which occurred in the span from July 23 to Aug. 4. Eight of those were during training hours, six during racing and two were non-racing fatalities.
Every equine fatality at a New York state track (harness and thoroughbred) is investigated by the state Gaming Commission. All horses that die while training or racing undergo a full necropsy as part of the commission’s investigation.
According to the gaming commission, "any time a horse dies on the track during a race or because of an injury sustained during a race (e.g., later euthanized because of that injury), an Equine Safety Review Board (ESRB) — consisting of track management, trainers and jockeys of horses involved, veterinary professionals, stewards, the state’s equine medical director and more — thoroughly reviews every aspect of the horse and the race, including the horse’s training regimen, its history, any medications it received or previous health issues, as well as any other issues that may be considered a risk factor."
Based on these factors, the ESRB tries to find changes that would make it safer to race.
In 2014, the ESRB issued a public report examining the circumstances of an inordinate number of deaths at Saratoga, and in 2012, following a high number of deaths during the Aqueduct winter meet, Gov. Andrew Cuomo formed an equine health and safety task force that effectively found ways to cut down deaths at that track.
Last year, the national average per 1,000 starts was 1.54 and 1.2 at the New York tracks. NYRA tracks have been under the national average in three of the last four years.
"The commission consistently re-evaluates its efforts and makes necessary amendments as needed in order to best reflect the research of the industry," state Gaming Commission spokesman Lee Park said in a written statement. "We apply a quality control approach in our work and continue to identify risk factors, circumstances and trends that may contribute to equine fatalities. We go to great lengths to educate the industry’s participants on best practices and guidelines to reduce and/or eliminate such risk factors. In fact, New York state is the first major North American jurisdiction to require horse trainers and assistant trainers as a condition of licensing to take continuing education on horse stewardship in order to ensure they are informed of the latest technology and trends in the field of equine health and safety."
McKenna said NYRA is open to exploring more options, in consultation with the trainers.
"There's nothing you can say that's really comforting other than you're confident they're doing examinations, and, believe me, they're being held to the task," Violette said.