At this time last year, a blue-ribbon task force had just completed a review of equine fatalities that had occurred earlier in the year at Aqueduct. The Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety completed a comprehensive analysis looking at the possible causes of 21 racing fatalities over three and one-half months, and recommended dozens of steps to lessen the risks for both the equine and human competitors.
For the three-month period ending July 22, 2013, there were two racing fatalities at Belmont Park and Saratoga Race Course. For the same dates last year, there were ten. (July 22 is the last date for which information is available on the web site maintained by the State Gaming Commission.)
This represents, of course, a significant drop, particularly when you consider that Finger Lakes – a non-NYRA track – experienced seven racing fatalities and there were even two such deaths at harness tracks. After David Skorton, President of Cornell University, took over as Chairman of the NYRA Reorganization Board last October, he made the safety of competitors his number one priority. Indeed, one could argue that it has been his only priority.
Among the more significant recommendations of the Task Force was a change to regulations governing the administration of therapeutic drugs. The state’s regulatory agency increased the permissible time before a race for administering two powerful medications – clenbuterol and corticosteroids. The clenbuterol change – from five days before a race to twenty-one days – was considered so significant by NYRA that it was cited as a reason for a significant drop in out-of-state shippers soon after the rule went into effect.
While a more restrictive regimen of administering therapeutic medications that can also have the effect of either masking pain or enhancing performance can only be beneficial for the safety of both the horse and the jockey, the Task Force literally made dozens of other recommendations, taking up 9 1/2 (single-spaced) pages in their report. The report was universally praised, and represents a practical guidebook for improving safety on racetracks in this country. The four task force members were Alan Foreman, Chairman and CEO of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, Scott Palmer and Mary Scollay, two nationally-recognized veterinarians, and former jockey Jerry Bailey. Both Foreman and Palmer have stayed on top of the issues, regularly attending NYRA’s Board meetings.
So what has NYRA done in implementing the recommendations of the Task Force? It is difficult to say because they have refused to release public documents that compare the recommendations with actions they have taken to implement them. This is particularly ironic because the Task Force report was prepared for the “old” NYRA that was not subject to the public records law while the “new” NYRA clearly is. There is also a NYRA Board committee on equine health and safety that met regularly early in the year, but has not had a meeting in almost four months.
While the decline in fatalities over the last three months may be happenstance, it is much more likely the result of NYRA’s efforts and focus on it as a priority matter. (At the April 11 Board meeting, then-CEO Ellen McClain said the Aqueduct fatalities this year were at the lowest point in 8 years.) One would think NYRA would be proud of its impact on reducing catastrophic injuries and would readily share information about its efforts.
But even if one assumes they have legitimate reasons to withhold these documents, what about their responsibility to the industry of racing and the safety of its most vulnerable participants? Anything related to health and safety should be readily available so that further improvements can be made, not just in New York but elsewhere in the country. NYRA purports to be an industry leader, and should act as such by sharing its experiences, even if it thinks some of them may be embarrassing.