Penn Takes Stand on Equine Health

Penn National Gaming is calling for new equine health and safety standards.

Penn National Gaming Inc., second only to Magna Entertainment Corp. in terms of number of racetrack holdings in North America, said July 15 it has developed equine health and safety initiatives it hopes implement at all of its properties in six jurisdictions.

The initiatives include limiting the height of toe grabs on front shoes worn by racehorses, endorsing rules for new riding crops for Thoroughbred jockeys, and recommending—at a minimum--adoption of the Association of Racing Commissioners International model rule on anabolic steroids.

PNGI officials said the company’s initiatives dovetail with recommendations from The Jockey Club Thoroughbred Safety Committee, which was formed in early May after the filly Eight Belles broke down and was euthanized soon after the running of the May 3 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) at Churchill Downs.

“Penn National Gaming endorses and embraces The Jockey Club Thoroughbred Safety Committee’s recommendations, which are sound steps toward ensuring the health and welfare of our equine participants,” Chris McErlean, PNGI vice president of racing, said in a statement. “We have outlined a plan to introduce several of these recommendations at our horse racing facilities over the next few months.

“In addition, we will actively promote the adoption of permanent rules and regulations for these items with regulators in every one of the six jurisdictions where we conduct racing. We have identified several other areas where information, uniformity, and cooperation are needed to achieve additional results to benefit the industry, and expect that other responsible pari-mutuel facility owners and industry leaders will follow our actions.”

Thoroughbred tracks operated by PNGI are Charles Town Races & Slots in West Virginia, Hollywood Casino at Penn National in Pennsylvania, and Zia Park Racetrack & Black Gold Casino in New Mexico. The company also owns harness tracks in Maine, New Jersey, and Ohio. PNGI said it offers more than 1,000 racing dates a year, and total pari-mutuel wagering at its facilities was nearly $850 million in 2007.

In a white paper, the company said it is “committed to adhering to such requirements in each jurisdiction in which it operates. The company is also acutely aware of the public perception and scrutiny from the racing community, the general public, and regulatory bodies regarding the issues of equine health and safety, and actively endorses new regulations to ensure the continued health and safety of equine participants at its racetracks.”

Effective Oct. 1, Thoroughbreds that race or train at PNGI properties won’t be permitted to use toe grabs in excess of two millimeters in height. The use of bends, jar caulks, stickers, or any other traction device on front shoes for racing or training also will be prohibited.

As for whips, PNGI said effective alternatives must be pursued. The company said it “strongly” urges the RCI and Jockeys’ Guild to adopt recommendations for new riding crops.

“In addition, we endorse a practical and thoughtful approach to the limited use of all medications on equines for racing and training purposes,” the white paper said. “We understand the immense complexities and various constituents affected by such policies, but we also feel that the adoption of consistent rules and regulations related to medication, withdrawal times, and testing thresholds, combined with enhanced testing procedures and facilities should be the overriding goal of all participants in our industry.”

PNGI said regulators “must not only strictly enforce the current rules, but also work with racetracks and other industry participants in developing new and innovative approaches to the challenges we face. Accordingly, Penn National Gaming will immediately petition the racing commissions in every jurisdiction where we conduct pari-mutuel racing to adopt policies consistent with the company’s aforementioned positions.”

PNGI also said it supports and is participating in a national injury database to provide consistent, reliable, and fact-based statistics on equine breakdowns and injuries; supports recording all equine fatalities during racing or training to increase the knowledge base and provide accountability for such incidents; and seeks continued due diligence on synthetic racing surfaces.

“We have fully reviewed the many successes and disappointments associated with the first generation of alternative racing surfaces, and will continue to evaluate their long-term potential for our multiple racing facilities,” the company’s white paper said. “As that process evolves we will continue to employ the highest possible track maintenance procedures at our facilities.”

The company also suggests a review of current claiming rules and recommendations on revised procedures to act in the best interest of horses; greater coordination and examination of racing dates, including cooperation on regional racing schedules, stakes events, and overall racing dates; and stricter policies on dealing with individuals who assist the practice of selling racehorses for slaughter.