The Task Force commissioned to study the increase in equine fatalities at Aqueduct early this year released its report ten days ago. This is a serious issue deserving of a sober and fact-based analysis devoid of political considerations. The Task Force did its job in producing a lengthy, well-reasoned and well-written report that is a service to the entire racing community. Unfortunately, the Cuomo Administration could not resist an opportunity to take another cheap – and inaccurate – shot at the New York Racing Association. We will save a discussion of the political implications for a later post.
Between November 30, 2011 and March 18, 2012, 21 horses died or were euthanized after racing at Aqueduct. This was twice the number of each of the preceding two years and about twice the national average. The New York State Racing and Wagering Board (NYSRWB), based upon the recommendation of NYRA, appointed the Task Force of four experts to study, analyze and report their conclusions. Two members were veterinarians from outside the state, one was Alan Foreman from Maryland and the fourth was retired jockey Jerry Bailey. The panel interviewed 75 persons within the industry, reviewed literature in the field of veterinary medicine, and retained outside experts. The result was a 100-page report, with another 100 pages of exhibits that are available here.
The report served to dispel myths and assumptions relating to the cause of the increase in fatal breakdowns:
- Not only is two-year old racing not harmful to the racehorse, but appears to be essential in promoting bone growth, lessening the risk of later problems.
- Of the 7,106 blood and urine samples tested by an independent laboratory during the review period, there were no illegal or performance enhancing drugs, or drugs associated with doping, detected. There were five positives for enhanced levels of legal substances, but none among the fatally-injured horses.
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as phenylbutazone or “bute,” are not, “as has been suggested by others, appropriately characterized as ‘powerful painkillers.'” There was no statistically significant difference between the injured horses receiving bute and the non-injured horses.
- Similarly, there was no statistical significance between the injured horses receiving Lasix when compared to the non-injured horses. As the Task Force concluded, “in terms of relative risk factors, it is intuitive that the magnitude of the contribution of [Lasix] to catastrophic injury cannot be very large because nearly all horses are treated with [Lasix] and because catastrophic injury, statistically and comparatively speaking, is such a rare event.”
- The Task Force found “no reason to believe that any of the fatally injured horses was administered an illicit or non-therapeutic drug.” Nonetheless, the Task Force noted that urine and blood samples from the injured horses were either non-existent or inadequate.
The central conclusion of the Report, and the one driving many of its recommendations, is stated succinctly: “The most significant factor for fatal musculoskeletal injury in the racehorse is the presence of pre-existing injury.” (Of the 21 fatalities, 19 were related to musculoskeletal injuries.) This is where the administration of drugs – albeit legal and permissible – plays a critical role, because drugs can have the effect of masking the underlying injury and its manifestations.
Singled out for particular opprobrium were systemic and intra-articular (IA) corticosteroids. According to the Report, corticosteroids “are potent anti-inflammatory agents that are used to treat a broad range of medical conditions in horses.” Intra-articular administration refers to the injection of the medication into the joint space of the horse. (For the record, I am getting all of this information from the Report. Prior to reading it, I had no idea to what “intra-articular” referred.) While observing that there are three commonly used corticosteroids, one of which has been demonstrated to protect and promote cartilage health, the Report singles out one particularly troublesome one:
Methylprednisolone acetate (DepoMedrol), however, has been demonstrated to have degradative effects on articular cartilage…. [t]he repetitive use of intra-articular corticosteroids, particularly methylprednisolone, may cause significant damage to the cartilage in the joint. Additionally, the intra-articular use of corticosteroids can mask the inflammatory changes ordinarily associated with joint disease, and can confound the pre-race clinical examination.
The Task Force identified 11 of the 21 fatalities as presenting “missed opportunities” to prevent the death. Of the 11 identified, 4 had IA corticosteroids, 1 had “repeated” corticosteroids and another 4 had trained on medications. While acknowledging that “[a]ll the medications reportedly administered to the fatally injured horses are recognized and accepted therapeutic medications,” the Task Force stated that training on medications can mask injuries that might warrant further scrutiny. Of particular concern were the IA corticosteroids that, when administered within a week of the race, prevented an opportunity to evaluate the results of the treatment prior to racing. In three instances of “missed opportunities,” the Report stated that jockeys failed to report concerns about the horse’s health.
The regulations of the New York State Racing and Wagering Board require a trainer to report to the stewards any IA administration of a steroid before the horse is entered to race. This appears to be the only situation in which administration of medication must be reported. In the four instances in which fatally injured horses had such treatment, no reports were made. The Task Force concluded that the regulation is neither “observed nor enforced,” and the NYSRWB’s failure to monitor compliance “is a serious deficiency that must be promptly addressed.”
The Veterinary Department within NYRA also came in for significant criticism. The five-member staff is managed by the Chief Examining Veterinarian who, according to the Report, failed to train or monitor adequately the veterinarians, and did not provide written protocols for examinations that would help ensure the consistent application of standards to protect the health and safety of the horse. In addition, the Department used an antiquated record-keeping system instead of a contemporary tablet-based system with Internet connectivity that would have enabled each vet to see the horse’s race and workout history, as well as the results of prior exams, and permit the contemporary updating of records during an examination.
The Task Force was further concerned that the Veterinary Department reported to the Racing Department, and not to the stewards or a separate regulatory agency. This, according to the Report, “establishes a potentially critical conflict of interest.” The Racing Department seeks to have the largest field size possible because more entries mean a larger handle. The Veterinary Department is charged with protecting the health and safety of the horse. Scratching a horse from a race, therefore, could affect the amount bet on a race. Even more troubling are concerns that pressure – even when only implicit – might interfere with the professional judgment of the veterinarians. In one instance, a trainer convinced the Racing Department to no longer assign a particular vet to examine the trainer’s horses.
The Task Force examined and analyzed a wide variety of factors ranging from inflated claiming purses to the weather. The former resulted from the infusion of money from the Aqueduct VLT’s and led the Task Force to conclude it was inappropriate for the purse structure to induce trainers to enter horses for purses far in excess of the horse’s value. The Task Force recommended a number of common-sense solutions to address many of the issues they identified.
At the same time, the group recognized they benefitted from “the clarity of a retrospective review.” While declining to find fault or assess blame, it is clear there is plenty to go around to all players in the industry, from owners to trainers to jockeys to state officials.