by Karen Johnson
Members of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association voiced their displeasure with the racing surfaces at Saratoga, Belmont Park, and Aqueduct during a meeting Aug. 31, but the New York Racing Association track superintendent later said he stands by the surfaces.
Trainer Richard Violette, president of NYTHA, addressed a small group of horsemen after training hours at Saratoga. Also in attendance were NYRA president and chief executive officer Charles Hayward, and racing secretary P.J. Campo.
Violette said there has been dissatisfaction among horsemen concerning the job being done by track superintendent John Passero, who has held the position since December 2004. The situation came to a head during the Saratoga meet after numerous complaints by horsemen that the main track, in particular, has been sealed on too many occasions when it wasn’t necessary.
“There are a lot of people who are not happy with the track,” Violette said. “It’s not just here, but at Belmont and Aqueduct. We need to make the track safer. We can’t be treated like children that will go away, and I say this not about Charlie (Hayward) and P.J. (Campo), but frankly, there is a big, big resentment toward John Passero.
“We are not happy with the track being sealed when there isn’t rain in the forecast east of the Mississippi.”
The weather has been generally ideal during the meet, with very little rain.
Violette said the constant and unnecessary sealing of the track, combined with not enough preparation before training hours to get the surface back to normal, have resulted in numerous injuries to horses during the meet.
“There are a bunch of 2-year-olds you can’t walk for three days after they work because they might have a problem,” he said. “The end result is that we need a safe surface to train on and race on in the afternoon.”
After the meeting, trainer Tom Bush commented that the main track has been dangerously fast.
“Horses are running way too fast; we’ve got track records being broken,” Bush said. “The track is hard because there isn’t enough preparation after repetitive sealing. Horses are suffering from more foot issues--shedding frogs and bruises--and it is because they are being concussed. After all, the message on John Passero’s cell phone is, ‘John Fast Track Passero.’”
Violette said NYRA will immediately address the horsemen’s concerns, and the New York THA will schedule a meeting at Belmont in a couple of weeks to evaluate the condition of the tracks at that point.
Passero, when contacted by The Blood-Horse after the horsemen’s meeting, said he knew nothing about the complaints until after the meeting when he was told by Hayward. Passero said the tracks are in perfect condition, and he doesn’t intend to make any changes.
“I was a bit surprised by all this,” Passero said. “I don’t know what is driving this train. If horses are having problems, it’s not because of the track. I will stand by the tracks. The NYRA tracks speak for themselves.
“The tracks are very good and kind when the horses step on them in the morning and when they race on them in the afternoon. We’ve been doing the same thing here for the last three years, and I think it works very well.”
According to Dr. Anthony Verderosa, NYRA’s chief examining veterinarian, one horse had to be euthanized as a result of an injury sustained while racing on Saratoga’s main track this year. Last year, that number was three.
Verderosa declined to identify the number of horses that were removed from the main track by horse ambulance during the current meet.
Another topic discussed at the meeting was the security of barns at NYRA tracks. Horsemen have been displeased with the set-up at the barns and claim they are inconvenient, unsafe, and generally disruptive to a horse’s routine on race day.
“We need to come up with an alternative plan,” Violette said. “It’s become the kind of atmosphere where you are guilty just because you haven’t been caught yet. That atmosphere has to change. It’s not the Wild West out there. There are a very small percentage of cheaters out there.”