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Liz O'Connell

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New York Racehorse Safety Task Force Is Taking Its Time

Posted: 09/12/2012 1:52 pm

More than five months after being formed, the New York Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety has yet to share its findings concerning the alarming number of racing-related horse deaths (19) over the inner track during Aqueduct's winter race meet.

Akin to slamming the barn door closed after the horse is loose, on March 14, 2012 New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's staffers Robert Megna (Director, NYS Division of the Budget) and Bennett Liebman (Deputy Secretary for Gaming) sent a strong letter to New York Racing Association's then-president, Charles Hayward. Megna and Liebman directed NYRA to hire a consultant to investigate the cause of the catastrophic injuries plaguing the then-ongoing Aqueduct meet. On March 22, 2012, the New York State Racing and Wagering Board issued a press release announcing the formation of the New York Racehorse Health and Safety Task Force tasked with a broad investigative mandate to examine policies, practices and make recommendations beneficial to horse racing.

Since that initial missive on March 14 from Cuomo's messengers to NYRA, across the state at the four Thoroughbred race tracks at least 56 horses have had catastrophic accidents requiring euthanasia. Calculated through September 6, 2012, these latest losses have occurred while horses were training or racing at Aqueduct (8), Belmont Park (20), Saratoga (14) and Finger Lakes Race Track (14). Expected to be released on August 21, the report has been delayed with no release date given.

A report delayed is a report denied.

The most likely scenario is that the task force's recommendations are at odds with the New York Racing Association or its state government overseers. Or, perhaps the release of the report will be used as a publicity springboard for announcing the re-organization of NYRA and the new board and executives -- thereby reducing the safety of our racehorses to a political ploy. Of course, this will be denied by all parties. In the meantime, whatever the cause for the delay, whatever the excuse, there are horses dying while racing and training on New York's Thoroughbred tracks.

Until the report is issued and the recommendations promptly reviewed and implemented, every time a horse suffers a fatal breakdown at a New York track , a point to ponder is: could there have been a different outcome, other than euthanasia, if the task force's report had been released and its findings instituted in a timely fashion?

Racehorse breakdowns at Aqueduct.

Earlier in the year during the Aqueduct Winter/Spring Meet, there was an unprecedented number (19) of catastrophic racehorse breakdowns while the racing was on the inner dirt track. That the accidents occurred while racing, rather than being distributed between training and racing, leads to questions about race administration and the fitness of horses being entered in the races. This rash of breakdowns occurred at the same time the purses for the races benefitted from the influx of funds originating from the video lottery terminals at the newly opened racino at Aqueduct.

The underlying cause of the breakdowns was unclear. Backstretch fingers were pointed at NYRA's racing office for allegedly strong-arming trainers into entering questionable horses to fill and increase the size of fields to please handicappers (relying on an eventual pre-race scratch by the track vet that often did not materialize). If horses weren't entered by a trainer, allegedly that trainer's precious stall allotment could be diminished. Trainers are loathe to discuss this problem, commonly referred to as starts-per-stall, publicly for fear of retaliation by racing officials. Note: Starts per stall policies are used in some form at most race tracks, not just NYRA.

Conversely, trainers were blamed for entering unsound horses and trying to cash in on the slots-enriched purses. If this was the case, how could so many horses slip through the race track's pre-race veterinary soundness checks and observations?

Is this the new transparency in racing?

Upon the task force's announcement, I emailed Lee Park, Director of Communications of the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, a series of questions relevant to the task force's appointment. Board Chairman John Sabini and Executive Director Ron Ochrym were copied.

1. Are the members paid? If so, by whom and how much?
2. Why is there no surface expert on the task force? Someone like Mick Peterson?
3. What is the timeframe for the task force -- when is report due, first meeting?
4. When are meetings of the task force?
5. Are meetings of the task force open to the public? If not, why not?
6. Is this task force intended to satisfy the mandate in Governor Cuomo's letter to NYRA regarding the racing fatalities?
7. Will this team be looking at Finger Lakes and the harness tracks? If no, why not?


No response.

I asked the governor's office to provide the information I sought. No response.

I sent NYRA the questions and was referred back to the Racing and Wagering Board.

On May 30, 2012, I made a freedom of information request to Racing and Wagering that was partially answered after the maximum number of delays allowed by law; then the information was mailed to the wrong address.

Brief overview of processes related to the New York Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety.

  • Initially, NYRA wanted to use the National Thoroughbred Racing Association as the investigative agency. This was declined on March 16 by the Racing and Wagering Board because "The NTRA is trade organization of which NYRA is a prominent member... Under these circumstances utilization of the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance does not present the level of independent and fresh analysis contemplated..."
  • On March 22, with much fanfare the task force was announced by the New York State Racing and Wagering Board. Retired Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, Alan Foreman - attorney and Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, Scott E. Palmer V.M.D. -- equine veterinarian and surgeon, and Mary Scollay D.V.M. -- Equine Medical Director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. Palmer was named chairman and he sent a letter to NYRA and the Racing and Wagering Board outlining the scope of the task force's mandates on March 27, 2012.
  • On April 1, 2012, the task force offered its opinion on the then-imminent changes being made to the claiming rules by the Racing and Wagering Board. In the letter, Palmer also said that the task force "plans to complete its investigation and report to NYRA and the NYSRWB within 30 days." That timeline would have had the report finished by May 1, 2012.
  • In an April 2, 2012 letter, Palmer requested veterinary and treatment records, necropsy reports and drug test results from the Racing and Wagering Board. The Racing and Wagering Board responded on April 5, 2012 with the available records for each horse. However, New York does not mandate necropsy (autopsy) of horses that die racing, unlike California and Ontario, so there were no necropsy reports. The Racing and Wagering Board did not include the individual records when fulfilling my freedom of information request.

  • On May 10, 2012, Palmer requested a list of horses that finished in the top three in races where horses had catastrophic accidents during the winter Aqueduct meet. Among the information sought by Palmer was a list of any medications administered within 7 days of the race, the date the medication was administered and the route of administration.
  • There was further communication that day, May 10, from Palmer to Racing and Wagering justifying the request. On May 11, an internal Racing and Wagering email concerning the request was sent to the board's general counsel, Robert Feuerstein. Almost a month later Feuerstein sent an email to Racing and Wagering's acting secretary, Kristen Buckley, about the request. Beyond Palmer's explanation of need, the content of the emails was not disclosed in the materials received under the freedom of information request. It is unclear if or when the information was sent to Palmer, whether it was sent in May or delayed until June.

On August 8, the New York Post announced the report of the New York Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety would be released on August 21 - the Tuesday of Travers Week. Travers Tuesday has come and gone, and no report. A delay was announced with no date for the report to be issued.

Since the aborted August 21 report release date, five Thoroughbreds have died in racing or training accidents. Golden Essence. Karakorum Magic. The Shade. She's Got Tude. Bluember.

Tick. Tock.

(Note: data concerning the catastrophic breakdowns of racehorses in New York was obtained from the New York state Racing and Wagering Board's Equine Breakdown, Death, Injury and Incident Database.)

 
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