Empire Racing Releases New York Safety Plan

Edited press release

Empire Racing Associates, a finalist for New York's Thoroughbred racing franchise, on Nov. 27 released a plan addressing measures designed to improve racing and training safety.

Empire Racing finished second to Excelsior Racing Associates in an assessment by the Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of Racing in New York. The recommendation by the panel, however, is non-binding, and the ultimate decision on a franchise-holder for Aqueduct, Belmont Park, and Saratoga will be made by the state legislature and governor.

Less than a week after the committee issued its recommendation, Empire Racing released its safety plan, which touches on installation of synthetic racing surfaces at Aqueduct and Belmont.

Empire Racing's plan for improved track safety was developed by the coalition of racing industry professionals who comprise the Empire Racing operations team, including Churchill Downs Inc., Delaware North Companies, Magna Entertainment Corp., the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, and Woodbine Entertainment Group, which recently spent more $10 million to install a Polytrack surface at Woodbine near Toronto, Canada.

Empire Racing will propose to the new governor and legislature the following initiatives, as a starting point, to immediately address racing safety needs. The plan calls for expenditure of about $50 million to pay for improvements.

Safety rails: A minimum of $875,000 for installation of new safety rails designed to prevent further injury to horses and riders during spills.

Padded starting gates: At least $270,000 for installation of state-of-the-art safety padding in all starting gates at the franchise racetracks. The starting gate is considered the most dangerous "hot spot" in horse racing.

Synthetic surfaces: At least $31 million for installation of synthetic surfaces on the Aqueduct and Belmont main tracks, as well as the Belmont and Saratoga training tracks.

"The alarming deterioration of the racing surface at Aqueduct and an increase in the number of horse breakdowns has led Empire Racing to consider additional measures to facilitate the installation of safer surfaces at the franchise racetracks," the group said. "In the coming weeks, Empire Racing and (the New York THA) will be developing further plans to address this growing concern."

The workers' compensation fund for jockeys: At least $175,000 to improve the current policy and reduce trainers' costs.

Horse welfare protection officer: At least $80,000 to fund a new position of horse welfare protection officer. The individual would be charged with keeping unsound horses from competing to avoid catastrophic breakdowns, as well as examining track conditions to ensure optimal safety racing conditions.

Test barns: At least $15,000 for refurbishing test barns at the franchise racetracks.

Misting tents: At least $40,000 for misting tents at Belmont and Saratoga to prevent heat exhaustion for horses and allow riders to cool down.

Improved horse paths: At least $90,000 for improving horse paths at all facilities. Immediate repair is needed to correct damage from weather and erosion and to keep horse paths to and from tracks safe and consistent.

Horse adoption: At least $30,000 for a horse adoption program similar to the successful program instituted by Delaware North at Finger Lakes Gaming and Racing.

Track security: At least $7 million for an updated security program on the backstretch of all the franchise tracks, including the use of high-tech surveillance systems. All security personnel would be trained in equine protection so they fully understand the needs of horses and horsemen.

Turf course: At least $750,000 for turf course improvements at the franchise tracks to develop new irrigation, pesticide, and turf-care delivery.

Eurocisers and swim facilities: At least $775,000 for two eurocisers and a swim facility on the Belmont backstretch to aid in equine rehabilitation.

Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations compliance: At least $9 million to ensure the franchise facilities are CAFO-compliant and that they do not continue to negatively impact the local communities, such as the historic Yadoo property that borders the Saratoga backstretch.

"Racetracks around the country are investing the necessary capital to make tracks safer for people and horses," Empire Racing executive vice president Dennis Brida said. "New York tracks are behind the times, and this can result in tragic consequences for horses and riders."

Empire Racing research, based on New York State Racing and Wagering Board figures, shows Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga have had an increase in equine deaths, recording more in the first nine months of 2006 (65) than occurred in all of 2005 (58).

"Currently New York lags the nation when we should be leading the way," Brida said. "Empire's unprecedented coalition of racing industry talent will be able to deliver the industry's best safety practices so that New York can once again boast of having the safest, and most successful racing program in the country."