A horse was euthanized on the racetrack at Saratoga on Sunday after it collapsed during the running of the sixth race. The race was for $25,000 claimers in which the purse had been increased as a result of the New York Gaming Commission’s weakening of a rule intended to protect the safety of horses (and riders).
The rule in question is referred to as the “purse-to-price ratio.” It refers to the purse value of a claiming race in comparison to the claiming price for a horse in that race. In a race for $25,000 claimers, a 1.8 ratio means that the purse could not be greater than $45,000. The purse in this race, however, was $52,000.
While this may appear to be an esoteric matter of little consequence, it became a major matter in 2012 when Aqueduct experienced a significant increase in fatalities. The deaths resulted in a Task Force being appointed to investigate the causes and make recommendations. A potential cause of fatalities identified by the Task Force’s Report was horses being entered in claiming races in which the total purse value of a race far exceeded the claiming price assigned to the horse. The Task Force concluded that
“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…. Accordingly, 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.”
Governor Cuomo agreed with the Task Force’s determination on the 1.6 ratio, explicitly citing it when he issued a statement ordering implementation of the Report’s recommendations in September, 2012.
Dr. Scott Palmer, DVM, who chaired the Task Force, however, had a different perspective. Three days after the Governor’s order, he wrote a memo to justify supporting a higher ratio of 2.0. His statement at that time is indicative of his thinking – both then and now – on the relative balance between equine safety and the economic considerations for racetracks, stating that “the Task Force did not consider the business model of Aqueduct in a competitive environment for racehorses.”
The ratio remained at 2.0 until this year when the Gaming Commission – at the urging of Dr. Palmer, now New York’s Equine Medical Director – weakened the rule and permitted ratios greater than 2.0. They did this even though Dr. Palmer said at a Commission meeting in July:
“… there’s some very good research that’s shown that there’s an increased amount of risk of catastrophic injury for horses in claiming races where the purse to price ratio is greater than 1.8 to one. This is a very sound piece of scientific information….”
Despite what he recognized as an increased risk to horses and jockeys, Palmer believed his proposed rule change would cause more horsemen to remain in New York rather than ship to a mid-Atlantic track, thereby increasing field size – for the economic benefit of the track. That this justification is identical to the one rejected by the Task Force, however, apparently did not factor into Palmer’s advocacy for the change in the ratio.
I am not suggesting that the increase in the purse for this race is what caused the horse’s death – even if the rule had not been relaxed, he could have run for a $50,000 purse. But a fatal breakdown in an event with an increased purse level was inevitable from the moment the Gaming Commission approved the weakening of the rule.
At a time when racing is facing increased scrutiny following the rise in fatalities at Santa Anita, a change that increases the risk to horses and jockeys is not only short-sighted but foolhardy. I am not the one who connected increased risk to purse levels. It was Dr. Palmer who despite saying it was a “very sound piece of scientific evidence” nonetheless advocated forcefully for a change he believed would inure to the economic benefit of a racetrack.
Dr. Rick Arthur, California’s Equine Medical Director, was interviewed on NPR during the Santa Anita crisis and said, “if we don’t make racing safer, I don’t think the public’s going to allow us to continue the sport.” New York’s Gaming Commission and its Equine Medical Director have shown they are oblivious to the worsening perception of the sport and placed horses and jockey at greater risk.