The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - SPORTS - By Stan Hudy [email protected]­ @StanHudy on Twit­ter

There was a spike in horse fa­tal­i­ties dur­ing races at Santa Anita Horse Track, more than 20 dead in about three and a half months.

Ab­nor­mal weather was one pos­si­ble cause.

There was scru­tiny on whether horse­men were pres­sured to race more horses, be­cause fuller fields help max­i­mize prof­its.

It was de­ter­mined that a lack of suf­fi­cient pro­to­cols and over­sight by the rac­ing of­fice had pos­si­bly al­lowed un­fit horses to run.

For peo­ple who have fol­lowed the spate of fa­tal in­juries to horses dur­ing Santa Anita’s win­ter-spring meet — a 30th death oc­curred Satur­day morn­ing — it’s a fa­mil­iar script. Only these de­tails come from Aqueduct Race­track in Queens, where 21 horses died be­tween Nov. 30, 2011, and March 18, 2012.

In New York, the fa­tal­i­ties ini­ti­ated the for­ma­tion of a state task force that spent five months ex­am­in­ing ev­ery as­pect of the sport’s cul­ture. The horse­men in­volved all were granted anonymity in pur­suit of the truth.

The re­sult was a 100-page doc­u­ment, with an ad­di­tional 100 pages of ex­hibits, sug­gest­ing re­forms that be­came a roadmap to safer rac­ing. Since then, the fa­tal­ity rate at New York Rac­ing Assn. tracks has dropped from 2.19 to 1.20 per 1,000 starts.

Among the changes, New York hired a state equine med­i­cal di­rec­tor, cre­ated a pro­to­col for han­dling necrop­sies — for an­i­mals, the equiv­a­lent of an au­topsy — and set rules for the use of cer­tain med­i­ca­tions. Cal­i­for­nia was, at the time, ahead of the game with some safety mea­sures. But other states were slow to sim­i­larly re­spond.

“One of the things that came out of the re­forms was that a lot of work can be done to im­prove safety,” said Alan Fore­man, a mem­ber of the New York task force. “[The re­port] was un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated in the in­dus­try. In hind­sight, the in­dus­try didn’t em­brace it.”

In 2018, the na­tional av­er­age was 1.68 deaths per 1,000 rac­ing starts. Santa Anita av­er­aged 2.04. Churchill Downs, home of the Ken­tucky Derby, was at 2.73.

With sim­i­lar safety mea­sures in place, it is dif­fi­cult to ex­plain the dif­fer­ence in death rates be­tween New York and Santa Anita, the jewel of Cal­i­for­nia tracks.

Rick Arthur, equine med­i­cal di­rec­tor for the Cal­i­for­nia Horse Rac­ing Board, has a cou­ple of the­o­ries. “One of our chal­lenges is we have bone dry weather con­di­tions, although this year we had the op­po­site,” he said. “Some hu­mid­ity makes it eas­ier to main­tain a track. And Cal­i­for­nia has a go, go, go way of rac­ing com­pared to other ju­ris­dic­tions. Our train­ers train hard and we have more [work­outs] per start than any other state.”

Horse rac­ing is not a sport that is typ­i­cally quick to em­brace change. Even in the midst of cri­sis, the three big­gest race track op­er­a­tors — the Stronach Group, which runs Santa Anita, Golden Gate Fields in Al­bany, Calif., and Pim­lico and Lau­rel in Mary­land; Churchill Downs Inc.; and the New York Rac­ing Assn. — haven’t agreed on many is­sues, in­clud­ing whether there should be a na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion to over­see med­i­ca­tion rules.

“This is a funny sport with a very short memory,” said Dr. Mary Scol­lay, chief equine vet­eri­nar­ian in Ken­tucky and a mem­ber of the New York task force. “It has a short-range view look­ing for­ward. The next overnight [en­tries] is the fu­ture.”

New York’s task force was com­prised of Scol­lay; Fore­man, an equine and rac­ing at­tor­ney who also was chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Thor­ough­bred Horse­man’s Assn.; Jerry Bailey, a Hall of Fame jockey; and Scott Walker, an equine sur­geon who is now the chief vet­eri­nar­ian in New York.

“The re­port was ground­break­ing,” Bailey said. “These were bril­liant peo­ple with in­sight into the med­i­cal is­sues and the le­gal is­sues. I was there to of­fer a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive. Noth­ing was left out. If I had known half of what I [learned] it would have been hard for me to get on the back of a horse.”

The group de­ter­mined that more than half the fa­tal­i­ties pos­si­bly could have been pre­vented.

“We con­cluded that 11 might have been saved with bet­ter pro­to­cols, bet­ter rules, bet­ter poli­cies,” Fore­man said. “… We have to be able to ad­mit that. You have to be able to say that those 11 would break down in the fu­ture. His­tory shows we were on the right track.”

Horse rac­ing is gov­erned by more than 30 state agen­cies. And while there are sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the rules in Cal­i­for­nia and New York, else­where the reg­u­la­tions can vary dra­mat­i­cally. For ex­am­ple, in Cal­i­for­nia jock­eys are pro­hib­ited from whip­ping a horse more than three times with­out giv­ing it a chance to re­spond. In New York, it’s 10 times. When Amer­i­can Pharoah won the Ken­tucky Derby in 2015, jockey Vic­tor Espinoza was al­lowed to hit him 31 times down the stretch. Also, med­i­cal records don’t al­ways fol­low horses from state to state.

Seven years ago, there were some com­mon­al­i­ties among the horse deaths in New York. Seven­teen were dur­ing claim­ing races, in which the horses are up for sale for a cer­tain price. The other four were in maiden spe­cial weights, races for horses that have never won. All oc­curred on the same dirt sur­face.


Race horses are seen dur­ing their morn­ing work­out at Santa Anita Park race­track on June 15, 2019 in Ar­ca­dia, Cal­i­for­nia. Fol­low­ing crit­i­cism from Cal­i­for­nia Gov. Gavin New­som and a call by the Cal­i­for­nia Horse Rac­ing Board for the own­ers to shut down rac­ing for the rest of its meet due to of horse fa­tal­i­ties, track own­ers have agreed to im­ple­ment a “safety re­view team” of five in­de­pen­dent vet­eri­nar­i­ans to eval­u­ate all horses prior to the re­main­ing races at the track. If just one mem­ber of the team ques­tions the fitness of a horse, that horse will not be per­mit­ted to race. A to­tal of 29 horses have died at the Santa Anita Park since the sea­son be­gan in De­cem­ber. More than 60 horses have re­port­edly per­ished at the track since the start of 2018.


Race horses are seen dur­ing their morn­ing work­out at Santa Anita Park race­track on June 15, 2019 in Ar­ca­dia, Cal­i­for­nia.

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