Report: Deficiencies Had Role in N.Y. Racehorse Deaths

A task force has determined the spate of fatal racehorse breakdowns at New York City-area Aqueduct Racetrack this past winter was primarily the result of structural deficiencies in rules and regulations employed by the New York Racing Association (NYRA) and the New York State Racing and Wagering Board (NYSRWB).

The task force's 100-page report was released Sept. 28 in conjunction with a press conference called by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The task force began its work in April, and there were several delays in the release of the final report.

The report makes many recommendations, including but not limited to, the NYSRWB hiring an equine medical director; requiring necropsies on dead horses and implementing protocol for the examinations; having veterinarians report to the NYRA chief executive officer, not the NYRA racing office; reducing the ratio of purse to claiming price; and tightening regulation of commonly used therapeutic medications.

Task force members said they found no evidence of "illegal or illicit" activity that led to 21 catastrophic breakdowns from Nov. 30, 2011 to March 18 of this year. But they also noted that in 11 of the 21 breakdowns, there were "missed opportunities for intervention," said task force member Scott Palmer, DVM, a surgeon at the New Jersey Equine Clinic.

"As an industry we all have to look in the mirror," Palmer said.

Task force member Alan Foreman, chief executive officer of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said the absence of necropsies greatly hindered the work of the task force. Foreman said no urine samples were collected from the dead horses, and blood was taken from only 10 of them.

Though some study was "inconclusive," Foreman said because no illegal drugs were found in urine and blood samples from the general horse population at Aqueduct (there were 7,106 samples collected), the task force believes the breakdowns weren't caused by administration of illegal drugs.

The task force recommended, however, the following for use of therapeutic medications: prohibiting use of clenbuterol, a bronchodilator, within 21 days of a race; prohibiting use of methylprednisone, a corticosteroid known as DepoMedrol, within 15 days of a race; prohibiting use of all other intra-articular (in the joint) corticosteroids within seven days of a race; and prohibiting use of all other systemic corticosteroids within five days of a race.

Foreman said issues arise when horses are placed on corticosteroid regimens rather than being treated as needed.

The task force also found no correlation between the breakdowns and use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as phenylbutazone. There also was no link to use of race-day furosemide, also called Salix or Lasix, Foreman said.

Mary Scollay, DVM, a task force member who serves as equine medical director for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, said the structure at NYRA isn't acceptable when it comes to the health and welfare of horses and jockeys. She said veterinarians shouldn't report to racing office officials who could be looking to fill races and avoid scratches.

"It is troubling that a lay person had the ability to direct veterinary activity," Scollay said. "That oversight needs to be moved from the racing office, and the stewards should be the only ones allowed to process vet scratches."

Scollay also said NYRA vets don't have access to detailed pre-exam records of racehorses as they do in states such as Kentucky, and that they weren't aware of all the protocol required by the accreditation NYRA received from the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Safety and Integrity Alliance.

The task force found nothing wrong with the dirt winter racing surface at Aqueduct but did note NYRA should examine the possibility of replacing it with a synthetic surface.

Howard Glaser, a senior policy adviser to Cuomo, said the task force's recommendations would be implemented as quickly as possible. He called the fact veterinarians report to the racing office an "untenable and inappropriate dynamic" at NYRA and said the current system is unable to detect whether a horse is suitable to race.

"This will be the most complete overhaul of horse racing regulation in the state, if not the nation," Glaser said.

The task force found some link between the breakdowns and lower-level claiming horses racing for inflated purses, some more than three times their claiming price. The NYSRWB mandated a purse be no higher than twice the claiming price, but the task force recommends a ratio of 1.6.

Glaser said an issue has been that revenue from video lottery terminals at tracks falls under the Department of Lottery, while racing is regulated by the NYSRWB. That will change in 2013 when a gaming commission is created to oversee both activities, he said.

About the Author

Tom LaMarra

Tom LaMarra, a native of New Jersey and graduate of Rutgers University, has been news editor at The Blood-Horse since 1998. After graduation he worked at newspapers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania as an editor and reporter with a focus on municipal government and politics. He also worked at Daily Racing Form and Thoroughbred Times before joining The Blood-Horse. LaMarra, who has lived in Lexington since 1994, has won various writing awards and was recognized with the Old Hilltop Award for outstanding coverage of the horse racing industry. He likes to spend some of his spare time handicapping races.

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