“As the racing world holds its collective breath, Santa Anita opened its fall meet – leading to the Breeders’ Cup – on Friday. The one certainty is that any equine fatality will become a national media story. If there is a second, the calls for outlawing the sport will increase.” I wrote that Saturday morning. Saturday afternoon, Santa Anita experienced its first racing fatality and the second since training resumed.
Santa Anita is in the national spotlight because there have now been 32 fatalities on its tracks this year, both in racing and training. While there are several tracks in the state, Del Mar, the only other one that gets national attention, just concluded its recent meet with no deaths.
New York has four thoroughbred tracks, with Saratoga and Belmont being the most prominent. New York has so far escaped the level of scrutiny that makes for the daily drama at Santa Anita. It is not, however, because the level of fatalities at New York’s tracks is not in the same ballpark.
If we only look at Saratoga and Belmont, there have been 36 total fatalities this year, including both racing and training. Aqueduct, which races for the six months not covered by that pair, has had four. Finger Lakes, a track not run by the New York Racing Association, has had 10.
I am not using these numbers to suggest that there is some sort of meaningful comparison that can be made between safety in California and New York. There are numerous variables that must be considered in making any conclusions based strictly on numbers. And California still has not stated publicly if it has determined the reason for the spike in fatalities earlier this year.
My point is that there is another high-profile racing jurisdiction that may have dodged the bullet of national scrutiny, but that it is living on borrowed time. And that borrowed time may also be true for the racing industry as well.
The Stronach Group that runs California has undertaken a number of reforms to address the crisis. Among the more controversial steps have been restrictions on the use of the whip and a gradual phase-out of the race-day medication Lasix. It has also increased significantly pre-race veterinary examination protocols and is now requiring advance notice of morning works and pre-work veterinary reviews. California’s regulatory body, the Horse Racing Board (CHRB), has been extensively involved in discussing and approving safety iniitatives.
While The Stronach Group and the CHRB are addressing both safety concerns and the increasingly negative perception of racing with imaginative and forward looking steps, the same cannot be said of its counterparts in New York. NYRA is the parallel of The Stronach Group and the New York State Gaming Commission is the regulatory body akin to the CHRB overseeing horse racing.
New York experienced its own high-profile crisis with equine fatalities in the early part of 2012 at Aqueduct Racetrack. Governor Andrew Cuomo directed an investigation by a panel of experts who came up with a 100-page Report looking at possible causes and recommendations for improvement.
One of the recommendations was that the regulatory agency “should expand its recently enacted out-of-competition testing rule” to include additional medications. It is a recommendation Governor Cuomo specifically cited when he directed the regulatory agency to adopt it. (Out-of-competition testing is not to be confused with the standard post-race drug testing that is commonplace.)
Out-of-Competition Testing (OCT) is universally accepted as a necessary component of any program to detect cheating in sports. It is a tool used by the United States Anti-Doping Agency to catch cheats in cycling and track and field, and by the major team sport leagues in America. Even the Ultimate Fighting Championship has an effective program. Dr. Rick Arthur, the Equine Medical Director for the state of California, has said that without an out-of-competition testing program with teeth, you won’t have a real anti-doping program.
So how is New York doing? I have been submitting public records requests for New York data going back to January 1, 2014. More than five and one-half years later, New York has never identified a thoroughbred horse that tested positive in an out-of-competition test. Never.
That may be because they do not conduct the unannounced surprise testing that is an essential component of an effective program. New York’s Gaming Commission instead announces they will be conducting OCT on horses in the days before a Grade I stake worth a million dollars. The lone exception to this was a low-profile trainer who had some negative media attention before the horses in his barn were tested. (The treatment of low-profile trainers in contrast to the “super trainers” is a subject for another article.)
There is another matter that Governor Cuomo directed his regulatory agency to implement from the 2012 Task Force Report. That would be a regulation governing the purse value in claiming races, or the “purse-to-price ratio” that I have written about several times. Dr. Scott Palmer, DVM, who chaired the Task Force and is now New York’s Equine Medical Director, said:
… there’s some very good research that’s shown that there is 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 …”
(The ratio compares the purse value to the claiming price. A 1.8 ratio means that the purse cannot exceed $36,000 in a $20,000 claiming race,).
Palmer’s comment was made in a meeting of the Gaming Commission that caused me to wonder if I was hearing things correctly. Because he was advocating for increasing the ratio over its then-level of 2.0. So at a time when the nation’s public attention to racing was largely concerned with fatalities at Santa Anita, we had New York’s Equine Medical Director proposing a rule change contrary to that of his own Task Force (and the Governor’s explicit directive) that would lessen safety protections for horses and jockeys.
Over a five-week period beginning in August, three of the fatalities from racing at Saratoga and Belmont came where the purse-to-claim ratio exceeded Palmer’s standard of 1.8.
One can certainly argue that increasing the purse in a claiming race is not going to cause a catastrophic injury. One can similarly argue that Lasix was not the cause of the fatalities at Santa Anita. What would seem to be inarguable, however, is that horse racing has a serious public perception problem, and that the use of race-day medication and the Palmer-backed change is not going to convince a skeptical public that racing is doing everything it can to protect horses and jockeys.
While California has The Stronach Group and the CHRB acutely aware of the need for public support, it also has a Governor and a United States Senator who have already made public comments raising a possibility that horse racing could be abolished. If New York’s racing leaders think Governor Cuomo will stand with them if the state begins to experience a similar level of controversy, it time for them to stop deluding themselves.
The Thoroughbred Daily News had a recent feature in which it asked prominent racing insiders to comment on a controversial proposal by The Jockey Club to regulate breeding. A common thread of many responses was that the industry had more important issues, implicitly saying that the sport could only focus on one matter at a time. Much to my delight, TDN is now asking “what would you do to improve the sport?”
The first respondent identified free past performance data as his top priority. That’s right. An industry is confronting a legitimate existential crisis and the most important matter is getting free PP’s into the hands of those who don’t want to spend $4 to get a racing card from The Daily Racing Form.
This is a level of obtuseness that may be the second biggest threat to racing’s survival. The national racing organizations – with the notable exception of The Jockey Club – are bereft of ideas and are instead clinging desperately to maintain the status quo, even though that status quo has seen constantly declining metrics on the sport’s perception.
One such group, the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, recently put out a statement advocating the retention of Lasix on race day. Then there is the Association of Racing Commissioners International – possibly in an effort to emphasize their cluelessness – said that if the horse people who cared so much about their horses could not use Lasix, they would start injecting formaldehyde. Seriously.
New York could join with California and start implementing safety-oriented steps – I would start with a vigorous program of Out-of-Competition Testing. I candidly doubt that New York will take any meaningful actions. It is yet another reason that those concerned about the future of the sport should push for adoption of the Horse Racing Integrity Act in the United States Congress.