SARATOGA SPRINGS — New safety measures were announced Monday in the wake of a record number of horse fatalities at Saratoga Race Course this season.
Seventeen thoroughbreds have died during racing and training since May 28, with one of those deaths being due to sickness. The number surpassed last year’s death toll of 16, with two weeks to go in the 40-day summer meet.
“Our goal is to reduce the number of racehorse deaths and injuries to zero, and we have taken many productive steps toward reaching that goal over the past four years,” state Equine Medical Director Scott Palmer said in a prepared statement. “However, our work is never done, and there will always be challenges that require re-examination and recalibration to effectively protect horses and their riders.”
The bolstered health and safety policies were announced by the state Gaming Commission, the New York Racing Association and the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. They include increased regulatory veterinary presence at the track during training, “state-of-the-art” monitoring of horses and comprehensive trainer education about research into the types of injuries happening at the state’s thoroughbred racetracks and ways to prevent them, according to the state Gaming Commission.
“The commission, as it does with every equine fatality on the grounds of a track in New York state, is actively investigating the circumstances of each incident at Saratoga Race Course,” Palmer continued. “This also includes close scrutiny of the track surfaces, exercise history and past performances, individual horse risk factors and more.”
Patrick Battuello, who documents horse racing deaths on his website, Horseracing Wrongs, called the announcement “just a big bunch of nothing” in response to a barrage of bad press.
“Facts are stubborn things, and they can’t control this,” he said. “Race horses, by the very nature of the industry, have always died on the track and will always die on the track.”
Battuello, of Colonie, added, “There was supposed enhancements and improvements prior to this meet starting, and here we are with 17 dead horses.”
Recent improvements at Saratoga 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.
NYRA officials are also considering opening the main track to trainers earlier next year, which would give the track’s surface more time to settle and trainers more time to adjust. This past spring, NYRA added clay and sand to the cushion that sits under the dirt track.
“Where safety is concerned, we need to examine every possibility, including a mandate to open all racing surfaces earlier than we have in the past before the start of the race meet,” said trainer Rick Violette, who is president of the state Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and a member of the NYRA Board of Directors.
Violette trained Howard Beach, a thoroughbred euthanized on the main track in late July after breaking his right front leg during a workout.
“We are all for insisting that everyone involved in New York racing, from the trainers and the owners to the attending and regulatory veterinarians to racetrack management to the state regulators, be held to the highest standards,” he said. “We all have to do our jobs to the best of our abilities. The litany of programs and initiatives and safety measures are only impressive when they work.”