Recent news accounts have focused on the dramatic increase in fatalities occurring in races on the Aqueduct inner track. The 12th catastrophic injury since early December occurred on Friday. It seems to be a sharp reversal from the progress made by the New York Racing Association since a similar increase in the 2011-12 meet. Yet that progress has not been replicated in reducing the fatalities that occur during training hours. Just as troubling, however, is that recommendations by a special Task Force following a spike in racing fatalities in 2011-12 are not being followed.
I studied the record of all fatalities from the web site of New York’s Gaming Commission for the same three-month period, September through November, for each of the last four years. Racing fatalities had dropped significantly, from a high of 13 in 2011 to a low of six in 2013 and then eight in 2014. Conversely, training fatalities had increased from a low of six in 2011 to a high of 14 in 2013 before dropping to 10 in 2014. When the number of racing and training fatalities are totaled, there has been almost no change. We went from 19 in 2011 to 18 in 2014, with the intervening years being 16 and 20.
The inverse relationship between racing and training fatalities is curious. It is further amplified when one considers that the high number of racing fatalities in 2011-12 and 2014-15 was matched in each instance by almost no training deaths on the inner track. In this current period, there has been one fatality in the morning (but three at Belmont). When a task force in 2012 looked at that meet’s 21 racing fatalities, it found no training fatalities at Aqueduct (but there were seven at Belmont).
Dr. Scott Palmer, New York’s Equine Medical Director, is aware of the disparity between New York’s overall success in reducing racing fatalities in contrast to the lack of success in cutting the numbers from morning training. I asked him about this last summer, and he identified the factors that made identifying at-risk horses during training so much more difficult than for those racing.
Each horse who is entered to race is examined in the morning by a NYRA veterinarian to determine if the horse is sound, or has a condition that warrants the vet scratching the horse. The vet should also equipped with records pertaining to the horse that might cause a red flag. Horses in training, however, do not receive any scrutiny by NYRA’s vets. While NYRA has on-track personnel to look for problems, including a new position of “Safety Steward,” it is close to being an impossible task to catch every potential problem. Dr. Palmer did say that he continues to work on possible solutions to the training track fatalities. NYRA did not respond to my request for comments on training breakdowns.
The spike in Aqueduct’s racing fatalities must be doubly embarrassing for NYRA. The fatalities in 2011-12 were one of the factors supposedly used by Governor Andrew Cuomo to seize control of NYRA and replace it with a Board of Directors consisting mostly of state appointees. And last week, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission announced that it had experienced 12 racing fatalities for all tracks for the entire year.
Catastrophic breakdowns are a difficult issue with many possible causes. All one has to do is look at a thoroughbred’s legs to realize that an awful lot of weight is being supported by those legs travelling at high speeds. New York investigated the causes that led to the 2011-12 Aqueduct fatalities by appointing a blue-ribbon Task Force that issued a comprehensive report identifying several possible causes. The Task Force also made over 100 recommendations that could serve as a bible for any racing jurisdiction seeking to reduce fatalities.
Unfortunately, it is not clear how committed New York has been to implementing the recommendations of its own task force. Teresa Genaro, writing in Brooklyn Backstretch, has recently written about two shortcomings.
One has to do with the state’s monitoring of compliance with rules and protocols concerning the administration of corticosteroids. Corticosteroids is a class of therapeutic medications used to treat a broad range of medical conditions (according to the Task Force Report). It can also, however, have a side effect of masking unsoundness if administered too close to a vet examining the horse. Repeated administration can also have serious long-term consequences. The Task Force Report identified it as a potential factor in several of the horses suffering catastrophic injuries during the 2011-12 meet.
Even though treating a horse with intra-articular corticosteroids required a report to the state’s regulatory agency (now the Gaming Commission), the Task Force concluded that the agency neglected to monitor compliance with the regulation, describing it as a “serious deficiency.” The Task Force recommended that the existing rule be enforced, and that a trainer who claimed a horse should be provided with the record of all IA corticosteroids within 48 hours by the prior trainer. This last requirement is particularly important given the potentially harmful effects of over-administering the drug.
Nonetheless, monitoring of these requirements by the Gaming Commission has been deficient, according to Genaro. While the Commission did conduct an audit in 2013, they do not appear to be aware of the extent of compliance with the reporting requirement. Just as troubling, the transfer of records from one trainer to the claiming trainer appears to be close to non-existent.
According to the Genaro piece, the Gaming Commission spokesperson said that while 600 horses were claimed in 2013, he did not receive a single request for records. Trainers are understandably reluctant to pursue the issue with a trainer they just claimed from. The Gaming Commission has developed a software program that will enable the Gaming Commission to notify the claiming trainer of corticosteroid injections reported on the ESAL, a Commission database, and that it should be running in a few weeks.
A second troubling shortcoming identified by Genaro is the manner in which the state has implemented a panel charged with examining the cause of any exercise-related fatality that occurs on a NYRA track. The Task Force recommended that the NYRA top racing official, the horse’s trainer and attending veterinarian, as well as others be part of the review. Importantly, the Task Force recommended that the “report of the review board proceedings should be made part of the [Gaming Commission] investigative report.”
But Genaro found that those recommendations have been watered-down. The top NYRA racing official, Martin Panza, does not attend the meetings. In addition, there are no reports generated. In true government fashion, Panza shifted the blame, saying that a report would have to come from Dr. Palmer of the Gaming Commission, even though the panel is a NYRA responsibility.
But the failure to implement either the letter or the spirit of the Task Report from 2012 does not end there. In a response to the series of recent breakdowns, the NYRA Communications Department issued a list of what NYRA has done recently to address fatalities. One of those innovations is that all fatal breakdowns, both racing and training, would be sent to Cornell for a necropsy. This was recommended by the Task Force Report of September, 2012. But it was also something NYRA stated it was doing in the summer of 2013. Apparently, this is yet another important safety recommendation that has fallen through the ever-widening cracks at NYRA.
Given the effort that went into the 2012 Task Force Report by four of the industry’s most respected figures – Dr. Palmer, Dr. Mary Scollay from Kentucky, Alan Foreman and Jerry Bailey – any serious inquiry into what is happening at Aqueduct should measure the state’s performance against what was recommended. Instead, NYRA has come up with steps to address the crisis, several of which seem to be of questionable utility.
One is to not allow a horse to race if it has raced in the past 14 days. Of the 12 recent fatalities, four had a race within the preceding 14 days which might make this seem to be a sensible step. (Three of the four also had poor finishes in the last race, finishing more than 20 lengths behind the winner.) But many well-regarded trainers will bring a horse back in a shorter period of time, and I have never observed any relationship between a quick turnaround and a breakdown. If anything, trainers who do that as a matter of course have a good record with it.
Another is to reduce the number of races. Again, I am not aware of any causal relationship between the number of races on a card and breakdowns. But this is something NYRA wants to do anyhow – this is the second time the current leadership has proposed this with the stated purpose of safety – and I am skeptical when a purported safety rationale comports with what they want to do for other reasons.
If NYRA explained their rationale with supporting data, it would be one thing. But this smacks of nothing more than a PR fig leaf to get past a crisis. There are, however, meaningful steps they could take to address this problem, although none of them would provide the short-term jolt that an ill-conceived press release provides.
The most important thing NYRA and the Gaming Commission can do is a serious audit of which Task Force recommendations have been implemented fully, and which have been altered – with an explanation for any changes. If they are fully compliant – which obviously appears to not be the case – then there is a problem of a different magnitude. Needless to say, this report should be made public, as was the Task Force Report itself.
One area in particular deserves serious scrutiny. The Task Force Report detailed practices by the NYRA vets when conducting their pre-race exams that were disturbing, if not shocking. What has NYRA done to implement the Task Force recommendations in this one area? Since this is the most proximate exam by a vet before a race, it is of special importance. If the Task Force Report recommendations are not being followed in this instance, it could provide an answer to the current crisis.
Interestingly, this is not the first time the Cuomo-controlled Board of Directors has faced what seemed to be a troubling increase in inner track fatalities. That time, back in 2013, Board Chairman David Skorton seemed to panic, coming up with a series of possible steps, including stopping winter racing. When the situation calmed down, so did Skorton.
But if NYRA and the Gaming Commission do not get on top of this issue, the next crisis will arrive and they will have nothing but PR stunts to address it. It would be far better if they took the basic management step of measuring what they are doing against the thoughtful recommendations by the 2012 Task Force.