PA Horsemen Call for State-Level Meetings

A coalition March 30 cited progress but said health and safety in racing needs study.

A coalition of Pennsylvania horsemen is seeking a series of “state-level” meetings of all stakeholders in horse racing to examine ways to improve the health and safety of equine and human participants.

The Pennsylvania Equine Coalition includes Thoroughbred and Standardbred owners, trainers, and breeders. None of the state's six racetracks is a member of the group.

A March 30 release from the coalition references a New York Times series that is examining the horse racing industry. Pennsylvania racing is said to be part of the series, perhaps as early as the next installment April 1.

The coalition wants a “thorough review of existing regulations” by horsemen, track operators, the state’s two racing commissions, jockeys, drivers, and veterinarians.

“The Pennsylvania equine industry takes the safety and health of our horses, jockeys, and drivers extremely seriously,” said Sal DeBunda, president of the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and a member of the coalition. “Here in Pennsylvania, the equine industry and regulators meet on a regular basis to discuss a range of health and safety issues, ranging from medication and guidelines to track surface and breeding practices.

“Our members, working together with regulators and other stakeholders, need to continue to build upon the changes and success we have had in Pennsylvania by identifying additional opportunities to enhance the health and safety of our horses, jockeys, and drivers.”

The Pennsylvania racing industry for the past few years has been shadowed by high-profile ejections at Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course and subsequent legal action; questions over whether horses are being shipped from tracks for slaughter; and criticism of the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission, which governs racing.

The coalition is seeking to tout what it believes are the positives.

Todd Mostoller, executive director of the Pennsylvania Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, said Pennsylvania tracks “were all better than the national average” in terms of fatal injuries to racehorses. Only one of three Thoroughbred tracks in the state—Presque Isle Downs & Casino—has publicly released its statistics through The Jockey Club Equine Injury Database.

Presque Isle, which has a synthetic Tapeta surface, has a fatality rate of 0.45 per 1,000 starts, the lowest of the tracks that made their data public. Penn National Gaming Inc. doesn’t make the data public for its tracks, but one of them, Penn National, has averaged 1.65 fatalities per 1,000 starts the past two years, below the national average and an improvement over previous years’ numbers, sources said.

"The installation of the ($6.4 million) surface was made possible through a financial commitment made by Presque Isle Downs and our association,” Mostoller said. “Even so, the Pennsylvania Equine Coalition hopes these meetings will help identify further opportunities for improvements related to health and safety.”

The coalition in its release outlined recent actions by the Pennsylvania horse racing industry, including a $1 million contribution to the New Bolton Center for drug testing and research over a five-year period; a reduction in the race-day level for phenylbutazone, or Bute; prohibition of anabolic steroids; a ban on corticosteroid injections within seven days of a race; and mandatory pre-race inspections for all racehorses.

The coalition also noted implementation of racehorse aftercare programs by the Pennsylvania THA and Pennsylvania HBPA.

The coalition noted the first installment of the Times series focused on Quarter Horse racing, which isn’t legal in Pennsylvania. It called comparisons to Pennsylvania unfair.

“While the coalition noted its members do not necessarily agree with all of the conclusions or statements contained in the reporting, they are appreciative of the attention that it has brought to this important issue,” the release said.

Members of the coalition are the Pennsylvania THA, Pennsylvania HBPA, Pennsylvania Harness Horsemen’s Association, Standardbred Breeders Association of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association, and Meadows Standardbred Owners Association.