Scott Palmer, New York's equine medical director

Scott Palmer, New York's equine medical director

Anne M. Eberhardt

Increased Regulatory Vet Presence Planned for Saratoga

Saratoga Race Course has seen increased breakdowns in training and racing this year.

With increased breakdowns during racing and training at Saratoga Race Course this year compared with 2016; plans have been put in place to increase the regulatory vet presence at the track during training hours, among other items.

In addition to existing equine health and safety policies in place at New York tracks, the New York State Gaming Commission (NYSGC), New York Racing Association, and the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (NYTHA) are implementing additional actions at Saratoga, including increased regulatory veterinary presence at the track during training hours, state-of-the-art monitoring of horses, and comprehensive trainer education intended to share scientific findings of research into the types of injuries that occur at New York Thoroughbred racetracks as well as outline risk and protective factors that can help to prevent injury.

Since July 6 at Saratoga, the NYSGC reports that seven horses died in training and eight during racing. Those 15 equine deaths are more than twice as many as the same period of time last year at Saratoga, July 6-Aug. 21, when seven horses died while racing or training.

"Our goal is to reduce the number of racehorse deaths and injuries to zero, and we have taken many productive steps toward reaching that goal over the past four years," said New York State equine medical director Scott Palmer. "However, our work is never done and there will always be challenges that require re-examination and recalibration to effectively protect horses and their riders. 

"The commission, as it does with every equine fatality on the grounds of a track in New York State, is actively investigating the circumstances of each incident at Saratoga Race Course. This also includes close scrutiny of the track surfaces, exercise history and past performances, individual horse risk factors, and more. NYRA and NYTHA are important partners in this effort. Pending the findings of this investigation, we will do whatever is necessary to prevent such injuries in the future. In the meantime, there are several proactive steps we can implement to make the sport safer for all involved."

NYRA safety steward Hugh Gallagher said no issue is more important than the safety of its equine and human athletes.

"That is why NYRA has implemented extensive reforms and made significant investments since 2013 to improve track surface conditions, upgrade equipment, provide vets with more authority to monitor Thoroughbred health, establish committees to oversee safety measures, and actively seek out advice and guidance from independent experts and scientists," Gallagher said. "As a result of these reforms, the number of catastrophic injuries during races occurring on NYRA tracks has been reduced by nearly 50% since 2013. 
"We remain focused on continuously improving the safety of our racing operations. To that end, we are exploring the possibility of opening the main track for training to horsemen earlier in the year."

NYTHA president Rick Violette Jr. thinks that opening tracks for training earlier in the year could reduce injuries.

"We are all for insisting that everyone involved in New York racing, from the trainers and the owners, to the attending and regulatory veterinarians, to racetrack management, to the state regulators, be held to the highest standards," Violette said. "We all have to do our jobs to the best of our abilities. The litany of programs and initiatives and safety measures are only impressive when they work." 

The commission applies a quality control approach and continues to identify risk factors, circumstances, and trends that may contribute to incidents. Additionally, the commission requires the industry's participants to be educated on best practices and guidelines to reduce and/or eliminate such risk factors. 

Some of the measures already in place in New York include increased veterinary scrutiny of all horses, complete veterinary autonomy from the racing offices, and strict equine medication rules. 

Measures being put into effect at all NYRA tracks and Finger Lakes Race Track include:

•    Additional commission veterinarians on-hand for training: The commission has stationed an additional regulatory veterinarian on the grounds of Saratoga Race Course during training hours. This doubling of efforts by the commission ensures that a veterinary presence exists to view horses during busy training hours and confirm that any incidents are appropriately documented and managed. 

•    State-of-the-Art Monitoring of Horses: Regulatory veterinarians are using reports provided by The Jockey Club's InCompass Solutions software to examine horses considered to be at an increased risk for injury. The reports will include horses stabled at Saratoga Race Course and/or Belmont Park that may be vulnerable to injury based upon extensive research findings.

"Equine safety has been and will always be a top priority for The Jockey Club and we are pleased that the New York Gaming Commission and the New York Racing Association are using our Equine Injury Database and our InCompass racing office software," said James L. Gagliano, president and chief operating officer of The Jockey Club.

•    Comprehensive owner, trainer and veterinary education: New York State is one of only a few jurisdictions in North America to require Thoroughbred trainers to obtain continuing education as a requirement for licensure. NYTHA, which fully supports this measure, has been an integral partner in this effort. These programs are regularly presented at New York State racetracks throughout the year. The commission's rule requires that all Thoroughbred trainers, including assistant and private trainers, obtain continuing education of at least four hours each year in equine health, welfare and safety as well as small business, ethical and human resource topics. 

The next continuing education session is scheduled for Aug. 22 at Saratoga, where Palmer along with two additional faculty members from Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine, will cover:
* Findings of the New York State Thoroughbred Post-Mortem Examination Program.
* Risk and Protective Factors: How Can We Use Them to Prevent Injury?
* Fetlock CT To Assess Proximal Sesamoid Bone Fracture Risk (with Dr. Heidi Reesink & Dr. Erin Cresswell from Cornell University) 

The presentation will be recorded and made available to the public after the event. 

NYRA's safety procedures and protocols: All parties continue to monitor the condition of the Saratoga turf and dirt surfaces. NYRA has consistently shown a commitment to implement science-driven best practices to maintain safe surfaces for its equine and human athletes. To meet this goal, NYRA has made significant capital investments to better monitor and maintain track surface conditions. 

At all three NYRA racetracks: Saratoga, Belmont Park and Aqueduct Racetrack; NYRA conducts extensive and continuous testing of its racing and training surfaces before, during, and after each race meet.

Along with Michael "Mick" Peterson from the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory and Director of Ag Equine Programs at the University of Kentucky, NYRA has been a pioneer in creating a Maintenance Quality System (MQS), which uses both daily measurements and enhanced techniques to manage racing surfaces with a goal of creating consistency between all NYRA tracks.

Before any meet, Dr. Peterson performs enhanced testing and analysis of the racing surfaces. Those tests include the use of ground-penetrating radar that looks at cushion depth, moisture, and composition of racing surfaces, immediately identifying any variations outside pre-determined criteria. His team also performs physical samples of the soil using triaxial sheer testing to maintain target clay, silt and sand ratios on the main track. Additionally, Dr. Peterson inspects the overall performance and consistency using the Biomechanical Surface Tester, which replicates loads and speed of a thoroughbred's leading forelimb at gallop. This test looks closely at vertical and horizontal load on the hoof during impact with the surface.

Dr. Peterson's comprehensive review of the racing surface at Saratoga includes:
• Laboratory testing of the track material
• Inspection of the base and cushion using ground-penetrating radar
• Inspection of the overall performance and consistency of the surface using the Biomechanical Surface Tester

 At Saratoga, Peterson conducted these tests before the start of the meet, and again between Aug. 9-11. All measurements, before the meet and during that three-day period, met pre-determined criteria for consistency. Furthermore, his analysis revealed that within the pre-determined criteria for variation, many measurements showed a reduced level of variation, indicating an increase of consistency, which is the key factor in providing a safe racing surface.

As part of its effort to provide the safest possible racing surface, NYRA utilizes daily measurements of the racing surface, keeps logs of maintenance work, and monitors and records weather conditions. Before and after each day of racing, NYRA conducts tests of cushion depth, moisture, and surface content to ensure the readings are within pre-determined criteria established by the MQS. All maintenance of the track, including watering, harrowing, grading, and other measures are logged and compared with surface measurements and weather reports to provide comprehensive analysis. 

All data collected is shared with Dr. Peterson in real time, allowing his team to constantly provide analysis and feedback.

NYRA has earned and maintained accreditation for all three racetracks by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA) Safety & Integrity Alliance, which, under the direction of Glen Kozak, NYRA's vice-president of racing surfaces and facilities, have earned "best practice" ratings in virtually every primary area examined by the Alliance.