A task force has determined the spate of fatal racehorse breakdowns at Aqueduct Racetrack this past winter was primarily the result of structural deficiencies in rules and regulations employed by the New York Racing Association and the New York State Racing and Wagering Board.
The task force's 100-page report with another 100 pages of supplemental information was released Sept. 28 in conjunction with a press conference called by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The task force began its work in April, and there were several delays in the release of the final report.
The report makes many recommendations, including but not limited to the NYSRWB hiring an equine medical director; requiring necropsies on dead horses and implementing protocol for the examinations; having veterinarians report to the NYRA chief executive officer, not the NYRA racing office; reducing the ratio of purse to claiming price; and tightening regulation of commonly used therapeutic medications.
Task force members said they found no evidence of "illegal or illicit" activity that led to 21 catastrophic breakdowns from Nov. 30, 2011 to March 18 of this year. But they also noted that in 11 of the 21 breakdowns, there were "missed opportunities for intervention," said task force member Dr. Scott Palmer, a surgeon at the New Jersey Equine Clinic.
"As an industry we all have to look in the mirror," Palmer said.
Task force member Alan Foreman, chairman of the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, which has a New York affiliate, said the absence of necropsies greatly hindered the work of the task force. Foreman said no urine samples were collected from the dead horses, and blood was taken from only 10 of them.
Though some study was "inconclusive," Foreman said because no illegal drugs were found in urine and blood samples from the general horse population at Aqueduct (there were 7,106 samples collected), the task force believes the breakdowns weren't caused by administration of illegal drugs.
The task force recommended, however, the following for use of therapeutic medications: prohibiting use of clenbuterol, a bronchodilator, within 21 days of a race; prohibiting use of methylprednisone, a corticosteroid known as DepoMedrol, within 15 days of a race; prohibiting use of all other intra-articular corticosteroids within seven days of a race; and prohibiting use of all other systemic corticosteroids within five days of a race.
Such joint injections haven't been found to specifically cause breakdowns, but they do wear down tissue. Foreman said the issue is when horses are placed on corticosteroid regimens rather than being treated as needed.
The task force also found no correlation between the breakdowns and use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as phenylbutazone. There also was no link to use of race-day furosemide, also called Salix or Lasix, Foreman said.
Several of the recommendations are included in a list of suggested protocol issued by the New York THA earlier this year.
Dr. Mary Scollay, a task force member who serves as equine medical director for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, said the structure at NYRA isn't acceptable when it comes to the health and welfare of horses and jockeys. She said vets shouldn't report to racing office officials who may be looking to fill races and avoid scratches.
"It is troubling that a lay person had the ability to direct veterinary activity," Scollay said. "That oversight needs to be moved from the racing office, and the stewards should be the only ones allowed to process vet scratches."
Scollay also said NYRA vets don't have access to detailed pre-exam records of racehorses as they do in states such as Kentucky, and that they weren't aware of all the protocol required by the accreditation NYRA received from the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Safety and Integrity Alliance.
The task force found nothing wrong with the dirt winter racing surface at Aqueduct but did note NYRA should examine the possibility of replacing it with a synthetic surface.
Howard Glaser, a senior policy adviser to Cuomo, said the task force's recommendations would be implemented as quickly as possible. He called the fact vets report to the racing office an "untenable and inappropriate dynamic" at NYRA and said the current system is unable to detect whether a horse is suitable to race.
"This will be the most complete overhaul of horse racing regulation in the state, if not the nation," Glaser said.
The task force found some link between the breakdowns and lower-level claiming horses racing for inflated purses, some more than three times their claiming price. The NYSRWB mandated a purse be no no higher than twice the claiming price, but the task force recommends a ratio of 1.6.
Glaser said an issue has been that revenue from video lottery terminals at tracks falls under the Department of Lottery, while racing is regulated by the NYSRWB. That will change in 2013 when a gaming commission is created to oversee both activities, he said.
After the press conference NYRA issued a statement from chief operating officer Ellen McClain.
"We understand that among the recommendations in the report are reform of the veterinary structure, stronger drug prohibitions, and new claiming and purse rules," McClain said. "While we recognize that some of these protocols are strictly in the purview of the NYSRWB, we look forward to working with the state to create an even safer environment for our horses and jockeys, and strengthen the New York racing industry so that it can continue to provide thousands of jobs and economic support for New York, the leading racing jurisdiction in the nation."
Barry Ostrager, president of the New York Thoroughbred Breeders, also issued a statement.
"The task force report offers important and necessary reforms that when fully implemented will help improve racing by better protecting horses and enhancing public confidence in our sport," Ostrager said. "We look forward to reviewing the report in detail but it is clear the task force took a thoughtful and comprehensive look at our industry. New York breeders support the strengthening of regulations intended to protect the welfare of Thoroughbred racehorses."
"The implementation of recommendations outlined in the report produced by the New York Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety will significantly enhance the safety of Thoroughbred racing.
Jockey Club president and COO James Gagliano said many recommendations from the task force closely align with Reformed Racing Medication Rules the organization issued earlier this year.
"We hope that this task force's recommendations are enacted quickly, not only in New York but throughout the country, for the sake of our athletes and the integrity of our sport," Gagliano said. "The Jockey Club stands ready to assist all regulatory authorities and racing associations as they implement the changes outlined in the task force's report."