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Officials Examining Horse Deaths at Saratoga

Equine medical director said 11 racehorses have died during summer meet.

New York officials said they are conducting a probe into the relatively high number of equine deaths during the New York Racing Association's Saratoga Race Course meet.

The state's equine medical director, Dr. Scott E. Palmer, said in a written statement Aug. 29 that 11 horses have died so far during the current Saratoga meet, compared with eight during the entire summer session last year at the historic racetrack. Palmer said, however, equine safety has improved in New York.

"There will be challenges along the way. We are experiencing such a challenge during the 2014 Saratoga meet," he said.

The Saratoga meet ends Sept. 1, Labor Day.

NYRA is now operating as a state-controlled entity. One of the episodes that helped lead to a state takeover was a spike in the number of equine deaths during the 2012 winter meet at Aqueduct Racetrack.

Palmer declined to offer possible explanations for the increase in equine deaths this year, noting the probe his office is now conducting. "Until that investigation is complete, it would be inappropriate to opine or make any final statements about definitive cause of injury," he said in the statement.

The Saratoga meet has included two fatalities during races and three during training sessions, Palmer said, with all five involving musculoskeletal fractures of the horses' lower limbs. The deaths included Ludicrous, who broke down in the stretch in a maiden race on Travers Stakes (gr. I) day Aug. 23 and was euthanized.

Palmer noted the other deaths this summer at Saratoga have included cervical and spinal injuries, as well as three instances of sudden death. He noted such episodes "cannot be prevented by interventions designed for musculoskeletal injury prevention."

The New York State Gaming Commission and NYRA, Palmer said, are considering different options to address cervical and spinal injuries. They include new designs at entry and exit ramps on the backstretch to prevent instances involving loose horses, and improvements to the hurdles in steeplechase races.

Palmer said the equine deaths are being investigated by the Equine Safety Review Board, whose members include Palmer and other staff of the NYSGC, which regulates the industry, along with The Jockey Club, Cornell University, NYRA, and the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.

Other steps being taken include use of new techniques to help vets better detect cardiac arrhythmias when a horse collapses.

"As stewards of the racehorses, we have a duty to do all that we can to honor and protect these incredible athletes," Palmer said.