The following article is based on one I posted on August 15. Following its publication, I received a communication from the spokesperson for New York’s Gaming Commission who provided me with a letter from Dr. Scott Palmer, D.V.M., Chair of the Task Force, who had determined it was not immediately necessary to change the ratio of purse levels to the claiming price. While I had requested documents under the New York public records law, this letter apparently was not in the possession of the Gaming Commission. This post discusses that letter as well as other factual material not included in the original post.
The New York Racing Association is running claiming races contrary to a key standard of the 2012 Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety. The Task Force stated that the ratio of the purse amount to the claiming price “should be no greater than 1.6.” Over the first 23 days of the Saratoga meet, NYRA has carded races that exceed that ratio 34 times.
The Task Force was created in 2012 following a significant increase in equine fatalities on Aqueduct’s inner track. It was composed of widely-respected racing figures and chaired by Dr. Scott Palmer, D.V.M. It was charged with investigating the causes of the breakdowns and making recommendations. One focus of their work was the infusion of revenues from Video Lottery Terminals that went to NYRA purses, especially in lower-level claiming races. The Task Force concluded that the existing regulation
“contained no provision to address a potential imbalance between the value of the horse and the purse of the race, as occurred during the Aqueduct meet. This imbalance contributed to perceptions that horses were being entered in claiming races beyond their level of competition and forced to perform to the point of serious injury or death.”
The agency regulating racing adopted a rule limiting the purse to claim ration to 2.0, but the Task Force found this inadequate to protect equine safety: “… the Task Force believes that the purse to claim price ratio should be no greater than 1.6, in which the value of the horse is approximately equal to the winner’s share of the purse, and that the Rule should be amended accordingly.” The Task Force conclusion is consistent with that of the American Association of Equine Practitioners which, in 2009, stated that the ratio should not be greater than 1.5.
Governor Andrew Cuomo agreed. When he released the Task Force report on September 28, he directed the regulatory agency to amend the “claiming rule to allow a purse-to-claim ratio no greater than 1.6 to 1.”
In an interesting development, Dr. Palmer retreated from the Task Force’s recommendation three days later. He cited the unintended economic consequence that might put New York at a competitive disadvantage with neighboring states that also had casino-fueled purse increases. While one would conclude from reading the Task Force Report that equine and rider safety were paramount, Palmer was now weighing the economic considerations:
“The Task Force believes that [the 1.6 ratio] is a defensible ration from a pure safety-goal oriented perspective, but recognizes that in this situation there are degrees of risk aversion that may be effective, even if they are not absolute.”
He further determined that the existing 2.0 rule
“may have already achieved the desired effect by providing a more appropriate ratio that has diminished the incentive to race horses at an undervalued price…. The existing rule change may well have established a balance between equine safety and economic viability, particularly when taken in the context of the implementation of the other recommendations of the Task Force.”
What is puzzling about this rationale is that the “other recommendations” of the Task Force could not have been implemented since the Palmer letter came only three days after the Report’s release. Also, the existing 2.0 rule had yet to be in effect at the time of the Aqueduct meet. It was adopted at the end of the spring 2012 meet, and had yet to be tested at the track that is the focus of so much attention regarding racing fatalities.
Since the 2012 crisis, Aqueduct has had two more occasions when fatalities provoked concern by New York’s racing officials. The catastrophic injuries early in the 2012-2013 Aqueduct meeting caused David Skorton, then the Chair of the NYRA Board to raise the possibility that racing at the Big A should be cancelled altogether. A member of the Franchise Oversight Board referred to the “killing fields” of Aqueduct. In the 2014-2015 meet, fatalities resulted in NYRA adopting several hastily-conceived steps intended to address the problem.
In 2015, there were 10 fatal breakdowns at Aqueduct, including three on the main track. Two of the seven inner track fatalities were in races where the purse-to-claiming ratio exceeded 1.6, albeit by minor amounts. Two of three main track fatalities came in races where the ratio exceeded 1.6.
The Equibase chart for one of those main tracks fatalities was particularly poignant in light of the comment from the Task Force Report that “horses were being entered in claiming races beyond their level of competition and forced to perform to the point of serious injury or death.” The chart for the first race on April 16 reported “ZENSTONE pressured on the pace inside by SONG BROOK early on and then PATRIA QUERIDA, got set down spinning just off the inside for home, inched away to the eighth pole, dug in under growing threat inside the final sixteenth, was caught in the last jumps while safe for the place honors, then was vanned off after the finish.” The filly later died.
Was the $40,000 purse for a $20,000 claiming price the reason Zenstone did not survive her final game effort? Since catastrophic injuries can have several possible reasons, it would be foolish to make that conclusion. Are the four Aqueduct fatalities in ten races statistically significant? No, given the small sample size. (Saratoga’s 34 races exceeding the 1.6 standard mercifully have not resulted in any fatalities reported on the Gaming Commission web site.)
When Dr. Palmer wrote his October 1, 2012 letter, he recommended against an emergency change in the regulations to drop from 2.0 to 1.6, instead saying that the 2.0 rule should “be kept in place until such time that a deliberate analysis of the potential unintended consequences that a proposed change in the ratio to 1.6 may be determined.” While such a discrete analysis has not been done, the spokesperson for the Gaming Commission assured me that Dr. Palmer maintains that ratios greater than 2.0 are still inappropriate.
It’s a curious way to conduct the people’s business. A well-regarded panel of experts prepared a lengthy report explicitly rejecting the 2.0 ratio and replacing it with a 1.6 ratio. That ratio is consistent with the recommendation of the national veterinary group. The Governor endorsed that proposal and directed the regulatory body (now the Gaming Commission) to change its regulations. The chair of the Task Force reconsidered and sent a letter three days later, but it never made it to the regulatory body. Since they did not have the letter, it is not clear if not amending the rule was the result of bureaucratic inertia or communications for which there is no written record.
What is clear, however, is that it is time to conduct the analysis recommended by Dr. Palmer. New York racing does not need another winter of negative publicity concerning safety at Aqueduct. Taking the claiming ratio off the table as an outstanding issue would be a step in the right direction.