Saratoga Race Course has witnessed a disturbing number of equine fatalities this meet. Since racing began on July 21, eight horses have had catastrophic breakdowns while racing, and
seven six more died while training in the morning. It has been the cause of considerable consternation on the back stretches, and among fans and the media.
On Monday, the New York State Gaming Commission and the New York Racing Association issued a press release announcing they were “implementing additional actions immediately” at the track to address the health and safety concerns. The release was five pages long (single-spaced), apparently in an attempt to convince the public that serious attempts were being made to address a crisis in public confidence.
It announced one new action being taken by the bodies responsible for the conduct of racing: an additional veterinarian was going to be assigned to the track during training hours, “doubling” the number of vets who witness the morning training conducted on two tracks.
I must admit that I do not know if having a vet present during training is a good idea, but I assume it must be. If that is the case, why has it taken the Gaming Commission and NYRA so long to take this step? If you have been to the main track and the Oklahoma training track in the morning, you know that one person could not cover both facilities.
The only other new action being taken is the decision by the National Steeplechase Association — not the Commission or NYRA — to ban apprentice riders from steeplechase events at both Saratoga and Belmont. That decision was announced in a one-sentence policy announcement by that organization with no explanation or rationale. That it applies only in New York indicates that this it is a panicked reaction to create the inaccurate impression that something is being done.
All the other “additional measures” are steps that have already been taken, which is not to diminish their significance. The press release was reminiscent of one of my efforts in college to throw together a bunch of unrelated topics for a term paper under the sophomoric view that the professor would not recognize bullshit when he saw it.
The cause of fatalities is a complicated one, and there are many possible explanations ranging from track conditions to undetected physical issues to irresponsible use of drugs. New York has implemented a number of steps in recent years to enhance the safety and welfare of horses. Dr. Scott Palmer, New York’s Equine Medical Director, chaired a Task Force in 2012 that produced a landmark report identifying a number of steps that should be taken to improve the health and safety of both equine and human athletes.
Dr. Palmer also chaired a group that reported on 2014 Saratoga fatalities, recommending additional steps to enhance safety. My memory is that the Gaming Commission reported that he was writing another report of 2016 fatalities, but the Gaming Commission has refused to answer my questions about whether there is such a report. The Monday press release states that another investigation is being conducted on this year’s breakdowns, but the Commission refused to answer my questions about whether that would generate a report.
There is little secret in why the Gaming Commission and NYRA issued this press release now. The Travers is the signature event of New York’s summer racing. Media outlets that care little about digging into a complicated story will relish reporting on the number of fatalities, because that is simple.
But putting out a release trumpeting “immediate” and “additional” steps that are neither, undermines the credibility of New York racing, particularly when the claims can be so easily debunked. As Rick Violette, Jr., President of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, said: “The litany of programs and initiatives and safety measures are only impressive when they work.”