CAPITOL -- Just days away from the Belmont Stakes and barely a month ahead of Saratoga Race Course's opening, state senators on Wednesday heard about concerns for race horse safety in New York state.
Equine injuries and deaths during races or in training have drawn national attention this spring because of more than 20 deaths at Santa Anita in California, but state officials said New York is already ahead of other states in dealing with the risks of racing.
"New York has been a consistent leader, below the national average [in track deaths], below the mid-Atlantic average," said Dr. Scott Palmer, equine medical director for the New York State Gaming Commission.
But the joint hearing of the Senate standing committees on Racing, Gaming and Wagering and Domestic Animal Welfare also heard from advocacy groups who condemned horse racing as exploitative and cruel, and condemned the lack of attention to post-retirement care for horses, some of which end up being slaughtered for food.
"As a two- or three-year-old, all their body components are immature," said veterinarian Dr. Kraig Kulikowski, referring to the racing ages of thoroughbreds. "These athletes are at the Superbowl, these immature athletes, and within a year or two their careers are going to be over."
"If horse racing did not already exist and I came to propose it with accurate numbers on injuries and deaths ... you would not have me," John Scheib, director of Responsible Animal Care Inc., told the senators. "We kill an average of three race horses every day in training or on track."
"This is animal exploitation. It's not sport," said Patrick Battuello, founder of Colonie-based Horse Racing Wrongs, which believes racing should be banned, both on cruelty grounds and because of its economic problems.
Senators showed little interest in such drastic measures as shutting down the industry, which directly or indirectly employs thousands of people.
"The economic impact of the equine industry is that it supports $2.5 billion in economic activity," said Sen. Daphne Jordan, R-Halfmoon, the ranking minority member of the racing committee, whose district includes Saratoga Race Course. "What about the families that depend on that activity?"
"I think it is an industry that is still solid and relevant in New York state," said racing committee Chairman Joseph Addabbo Jr., D-Ozone Park. "That said, we have issues ... That's why we're here."
The Saratoga track has averaged around a dozen equine deaths on training or on the track in recent years, including a spike of 21 deaths in 2017. Leg injuries are the most common reason for track deaths, with the animal euthanized due to the injury.
Palmer said that spike led directly to at least one change -- when horses are shipped into New York state after not being raced in at least six months, a state Gaming Commission veterinarian contacts the trainer to find out why the horse hasn't raced. Many of the horses that race at Saratoga ship in from other states.
Last year, New York state averaged 1.29 deaths per 1,000 track starts, below the national average of 1.68 deaths per start, Palmer said.
A horse not having raced in months or having a pre-existing injury, even a microfracture too small to show up on an X-ray, is a major risk factor for a horse breaking down during strenuous training or during a race, Palmer said.
"To go farther, we need to do a better job of identifying horses that are at risk, and figuring out how to intervene," Gaming Commission Executive Director Robert T. Williams said in response to a question from Jordan.
“It has been a top priority of the commission to protect the human and equine athletes," Williams testified. “New York’s equine drug rules are considered among the most strict and protective in the nation.”
Palmer said the use of steroid drugs to treat race horses running in New York has been severely limited since a series of deaths at Aqueduct in 2011-2012. He also noted that the New York Racing Association, which operates Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga, has agreed to phase out the race-day use of Lasix, a drug widely used to prevent bleeding in the lungs of race horse while they are running.
But Palmer also said risks can't be totally prevented. "Horse racing is an inherently dangerous business," he said. "The animals are big, and they’re fast.”
But one speaker, Dr. Sheila Lyons, founder of the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine, said drugs are being given to horses for reasons other than healing injuries. “It is not therapeutic if it is given to improve race performance," she testified.
A NYRA representative said the organization wants to work with legislators, regulators and critics to protect the health of horses. "Advancing measures to ensure the safety of racing is an ongoing process," said Tom DeJesu, NYRA's director of public outreach.
Abbaddo said he is interested in learning what new programs could be funded to better protect horses or ensure that they receive adequate care after their retirement from racing, which can last 20 years or more.