See UPDATE on this issue posted on September 15, 2013
In a major reversal, Christopher Kay, President and CEO of the New York Racing Association, is going to undo one of the significant reforms implemented after the report of last year’s Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety. Kay has decided that NYRA’s Veterinary Department will report to the Senior Vice President of Racing Operations when he starts his job at the end of the month. Since the Report, the Veterinary Department has reported its decisions on scratches to the stewards. While this may seem like nothing more than bureaucratic shuffling, the reporting relationship of the veterinarians was a critical problem identified by the Task Force.
The Task Force was appointed in early 2012 following an uptick in fatal breakdowns during the Aqueduct winter meet of 2011-12. The panel consisted of four widely-respected experts in racing, including two prominent veterinarians, Scott Palmer and Mary Scollay-Ward, Alan Foreman, head of the national Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, and former jockey Jerry Bailey. The group conducted a comprehensive analysis of the Aqueduct fatalities and released a 100-page report that was universally praised for its comprehensive and thoughtful analysis and recommendations. Governor Andrew Cuomo expressed his commitment to making equine safety “the top priority of horseracing.”
The Task Force looked at a number of factors that could have played a role in the breakdowns - safety of the racing surface, medication rules, violations of the drug rules, and even the aberrant weather for that time of year in New York. Foremost among their concerns, however, was that the NYRA Veterinary Department reported to the Racing Office. The Task Force described this relationship as a “critical conflict-of-interest” that “must be changed immediately.”
The conflict arises from the differing objectives of the Racing Office and the Veterinary Department. The latter is charged with ensuring the safety of equine competitors so that only sound horses are allowed to race. The Racing Office, by contrast, has a major focus of providing large fields for bettors, because larger fields means an increase in the wagering handle - and more revenue for NYRA. As the Task Force Report observed:
Racetrack management has a vested interest in maximizing field size. Conversely, field size, or the economic impact of a scratch, must never be a consideration when an examining veterinarian assesses a horse’s suitability to race.
The vets begin each race day by conducting physical examinations of the day’s entrants. If a horse does not pass this inspection, the vet would recommend a scratch to the Racing Office. The Task Force Report recounts examples of interference by trainers and Racing Office personnel seeking to overturn the decision to scratch. In one such case, a trainer dissatisfied with a vet’s assessment of a horse succeeded in getting the Racing Office to bar that veterinarian from examining the trainer’s horses in the future. The Task Force also reported personnel in the Racing Office refusing or overturning the scratch recommendations of a veterinarian. The Report described an atmosphere in which non-veterinarians felt “empowered” to challenge the decisions of the vets: ”The success of some of these challenges created an environment in which veterinarians felt intimidated and reluctant to make unpopular scratch recommendations.”
The Task Force recommended that the Veterinary Department report to the separate agency that regulates racing - now the Gaming Commission. Barring that preferred resolution, the Task Force said that the vets should report to the stewards, an approach adopted by NYRA over a year ago. That is the decision that CEO Kay is now reversing by having the Veterinary Department once again report to the racing operation.
Even if we ignore the wisdom of this decision, the timing could not be more inapposite. While NYRA’s spring meeting at Belmont experienced a significant reduction in racing fatalities this year, the trend was reversed at Saratoga. The Belmont fall meet saw four catastrophic breakdowns compared with last year’s six, but the Aqueduct fall meet has already had one in its first week. But it’s the Finger Lakes Racetrack that is experiencing an increase in fatalities reminiscent of the Aqueduct crisis that sparked the convening of the Task Force. It’s not a NYRA track, but is one under the jurisdiction of the Gaming Commission. While the current NYRA leadership fancies itself as the racing industry’s leader - and, for better or worse, it is certainly one of them - the backtracking on a significant change affecting safety is not the example a leader sets.
We do not know what Chris Kay was thinking when he decided to go against a key recommendation of the Task Force. There is, however, an unsettling backdrop to the decision that embodies the fears expressed by the Task Force on this “unacceptable conflict of interest.” The Cuomo Administration, including its Chairman of the NYRA Board David Skorton, is on a mission to stop payments to NYRA from the casino company that operates the Video Lottery Terminals at Aqueduct. With the VLT revenues, NYRA is in the black; remove them and they are, once again, in the red. Making the racing operation profitable without VLT revenues is now the Administration’s prime focus.
But let’s give the final word to Governor Cuomo. His press release praising the work of the Task Force stated, “NYRA’s organizational veterinary structure was inherently conflicted by reporting to an entity (the Racing Office) whose function is inconsistent with deliberate and careful equine risk management practice.” That is the structure CEO Kay has decided to bring back to NYRA.