Breakdowns at the racetrack: we need to solve this together

A look back at the experience of Aqueduct, where there was a spate of equine fatalities from November 2011 to March 2012, would be useful now the industry is faced with a similar situation at Santa Anita. Photo:

In the past few weeks, the Thoroughbred racing industry in the U.S. has been struggling with a marked increase in breakdowns of horses at Santa Anita Park. Since the winter meet started on December 26, 21 horses have had to be euthanized. Seven deaths occurred after racing on the dirt surface, nine after training on the dirt in the morning, and five were euthanized after racing on the turf. This was approximately twice as many deaths as in the same period in both 2017 and 2018.

The Stronach Group have been working around the clock to understand and explain what has occurred.

Long-time Santa Anita and recently retired track expert Dennis Moore has been called in to work on the situation. Joining Moore is one of the leading industry experts on racing surfaces, Mick Peterson, Director of the University of Kentucky’s Ag Equine Programs.

From my experience, and true to form, the press and many racing people have focused directly on the safety of the racing surface as the main issue. However, the reality is far more complicated. There are many more variables, including state medication rules, private and state regulatory veterinarian rules, steward and racing office protocols and practices, and a broad range of trainers with varying complexities in the size and breadth of their operations.

Useful playbook

There is no question that the weather in the area during January and February, which brought about 12 inches of rain, has played some yet-to-be determined role. However, it is imperative that a comprehensive review and fact-finding initiative takes place.

Fortunately, Santa Anita was able to open for limited training on Monday and is currently planning to resume racing on Friday, March 22. However, it will be some time before the Stronach Group will be able study the situation in detail and make the appropriate adjustments to its operation and industry protocols to prevent the situation from recurring.

I do think that there is a playbook that might be useful for the entire industry to draw from.

When I was working at the New York Racing Association (NYRA), we faced a similar situation from November 30, 2011, to March 18, 2012, when 21 horses died or were euthanized as a result of the conduct of racing at Aqueduct Race Track in Queens, New York.

NYRA had the same incidence of 21 racing fatalities as Santa Anita currently. It was double the number of fatalities for each of the prior two years at Aqueduct.

In a letter dated March 14, 2012, from Governor Andrew Cuomo, NYRA was advised to “hire a qualified independent investigator or team of investigators to review the circumstances involving these breakdowns, analyze the cause or causes and recommend any necessary action to [prevent] equine breakdowns at NYRA facilities”.

Working with the assistance of the NY State Racing and Wagering Board, and Rick Violette, then President of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, the following task force of four exceptional industry experts was formed:

The task force’s mandate was to:

  • Investigate the cause or causes of the 21 equine fatalities at Aqueduct’s inner track meet between December 2011 and March 18, 2012;
  • Examine the physical condition of Aqueduct’s inner track;
  • Review and advise on policies relating to public disclosures, necropsies, track conditions and pre-race examinations;
  • Examine rules and practices relating to claiming procedures, veterinary procedures and equine drug use.

The team, which was named the New York Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety, comprised the following members:

  • Dr. Scott Palmer, VWD, an internationally known equine surgeon and hospital director of the New Jersey Equine Clinic. He was the chairman
  • Dr. Mary Scollay-Ward, DVM and current Equine Medical Director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and highly regarded equine veterinary practitioner.
  • Alan M. Foreman, a well-known equine and racing law expert. In addition to his private practice, Foreman was Chairman and CEO of the THA, founding Director of the NTRA and Vice Chair of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium.
  • Jerry Bailey is a Hall of Fame jockey and a seven-time Eclipse Award winner. He remains active as NBC and ESPN television analyst.

In addition, Mick Peterson, mentioned above for his current work at Santa Anita, was retained by NYRA to do extensive racetrack analysis when he was operating the University of Maine Racing Surface Testing Lab. The NYRA racing office, veterinarians, stewards and senior management participated in this important initiative at the request of the task force.

I am writing this article to help demonstrate that the topic of breakdowns at U.S. racetracks goes far beyond any discussion of the safety of any racing individual surface.

Also, the pressure from the mainstream media and social media, fueled by questions from PETA and other animal rights groups, is greater than it has ever been for racing. Yes, safe racing surfaces are very important, but there are many, many more substantive issues that drive the safety and integrity components of the sport. As you will see from the comprehensive New York Task Force Report, every participant in all aspects of Thoroughbred racing has a responsibility to perform at the highest level of integrity and commitment.

I do not believe there has ever been a better analysis than this 100-page task force report of September 2012 of the diverse and complicated issues involved in operating a racetrack with the highest concern for racing safety and integrity for all participants and stakeholders. I should also note that this report was written and published months after I had departed from NYRA and had I no participation in writing or preparing any aspect of it. However, I think there is a lot to learn from the work done on this crucial subject.

To get an overview of the project, I strongly suggest that you read the bottom half of page 4 and page 5, examining the speculations and theories that the task force dealt with. Perhaps more importantly, pages 7-9 define the scope of the investigation and the methodology of the task force.

Before digging into some of the details of the individual horses and related activities, there are some interesting summary facts for background.

  • Of the 21 equine fatalities in the period, 18 were horses euthanized as the result of fractures during a race. One additional horse was euthanized a week after her race from a severe soft tissue injury.
  • Two fatalities were unrelated to musculoskeletal failure. One horse collapsed and died after finishing her race. A second horse was euthanized one week following the race due to the development of an infection from a laceration that occurred during the race.
  • Interestingly, 17 of the fatalities occurred in claiming races and four occurred in Maiden Special Weight races. No fatalities occurred in stakes or allowance races.
  • During this 3½-month period, there were no fatalities on the inner track during training hours.
  • 17 fatalities occurred when the track was rated fast, two were on good tracks and two were on muddy tracks.

There is a detailed analysis of each individual fatality on pages 16-34. The task force had identified eight different events or circumstances associated with increased risk of fatal musculoskeletal injury in a Thoroughbred. Those factors can be found on page 16.

There were a number of important systemic issues that the task force identified in its evaluation of the 21 horses that were euthanized or died. Perhaps most importantly, the task force stated that 11 of the 21 had displayed factors that represented a “missed opportunity” to prevent their deaths. Below I have presented some of the more crucial issues.

The issue of increased purses

First, at NYRA, the Chief Examining Vet and his department reported directly to the VP Director of Racing. This was a potential direct conflict of interest as it is the Director of Racing’s responsibility to maximize the numbers of entries in a race resulting in increased field size and increased wagering revenue. That could have been in direct conflict with the role of the NYRA vets. This reporting relationship could compromise the integrity of the pre-race examinations and discourage a legitimate scratch that the vet should make.

At the conclusion of the task force, the Chief Examining Vet and his department were moved to report to the stewards.

Increased purses became a huge issue. The Aqueduct Video Lottery terminals at Aqueduct Race Track opened on October 31, 2011. The NYRA purse account was projected to receive an additional amount from the VLTs totaling $50+ million for a projected 50 percent increase in the NYRA purse account for 2012 over 2011 levels.

As CEO, I worked with the VP Director of Racing and developed a detailed 2012 purse account schedule that was approved by the NYRA Board. While the lower level claiming races received a proportionally smaller purse increase compared to the other race categories, the increase still resulted in a significant increase in claiming activity when the purse increase became effective on January 1, 2012. Here is the claiming activity for the Aqueduct inner meet for the three relevant years.

  • 2009-2010 meet        184 claims
  • 2010-2011 meet        189 claims
  • 2011-2012 meet        449 claims

This was an increase of 138 percent year over year and in one instance 18 individual trainer claims were submitted for a single horse. In some instances, a $7,500 claimer could run for a $40,000 purse.

At that time, NYRA decided to move racing from the inner track to the outer track two weeks earlier than the normal early April date and adjusted the purses accordingly. Fortunately, the claiming activity and the breakdowns diminished in response to the purse reductions and moving to the main track.

One serious issue that limited the ability of the task force to study the horses that were euthanized was the fact that NYRA and New York State at that time did not perform necropsies (autopsy for an animal) on any of the horses that were euthanized. Subsequent to issuing the report, NYRA is now required to have a necropsy performed on any horse that dies or is euthanized as a result of an injury.

Breach of protocol

Another serious breach of the required protocol was that trainers are required to report all intra articular (IA) joint injections involving corticosteroids. A number of the deceased horses had vet records that reflected that the horse had received an IA joint injection. However, the trainer in all cases had not informed the steward as required under state policy. The trainers are now compliant with this important rule.

A critical problem related to this was that, when a horse was claimed, the medical records of the horse did not travel to the new trainer after the claim. This posed a huge problem for any vet who was aggressively injecting ankles and knees as they had no record of what had been done previously. This is the equine version of Russian roulette.

One troubling issue that was discovered when a number of jockeys were interviewed by the task force was that on a number of occasions the jockeys acknowledged that their horse was not warming up well and was lame. However, they chose not to inform the steward at the gate as they were concerned that the trainer would not book the jockey again if he or she scratched the horse.

In some cases, the jockeys on film were observed easing the horse from the gate. However, in other instances, the jockey rode the horse aggressively to try to win the race, thus endangering the horse, him or herself and the other equine and human participants in the race. While this was noted in the report findings, I could not find any action that was taken.

Higher temperatures

Finally, while the task force did not find any fault with the racing surface, it did note that there were significantly much higher temperatures and much less rain/snow in 2012 than in the two prior years.

At that time, my personal observation was that, due to lack of moisture in the track on certain days, the track seemed heavier and the horses were laboring in the stretch run.

Here is a brief graph of that weather, reflecting the aberrant conditions in 2012:





The final task force report does not devote much space to racing surfaces. This is interesting because, as we saw in recent days at Santa Anita, the overwhelming majority of the discussion has been devoted to the racing surface.

Similarly, in the winter of 2011-2012 at Aqueduct, most of the media focus was on the safety of the racing surface. However, if you are interested in the NYRA approach to track maintenance and the racing surfaces, Mick Peterson provides an excellent report as Exhibit B in the Appendix, in which he is particularly complimentary about the work of Glen Kozak (NYRA Senior VP, Facilities and Racing Surfaces). Kozak is a brilliant manager and one of the leading racetrack professionals on racing surfaces.

Program of best practices

One of the most important recommendations of the task force was for New York State to establish the position of Equine Medical Director to oversee and advise on all matters related to veterinary practices and protocols, medication and drug testing and equine health, welfare and safety issues. New York State took the right opportunity and hired the chairman of the task force, Dr. Scott Palmer, for the job.

The other three members of the task force, Dr. Mary Scollay-Ward, Alan Foreman and Jerry Bailey, continue to be industry leaders and produced the ‘gold standard’ for the safety and integrity of racetrack operations and conduct. I believe it would serve the industry well to develop a program of best practices in this critical area of racing and racetrack safety and integrity. It would certainly help respond on behalf of the entire industry when the next Santa Anita or Aqueduct situation comes along … and, believe me, one will.

Finally, I cannot leave the topic of racetrack safety and integrity without acknowledging Jim Gagliano, President of the Jockey Club, his management team and the Jockey Club Board for their support of many important industry safety and integrity programs. The launch by the Jockey Club of the Equine Injury Database in July 2008 and its work with the racetracks has been a game changer in the reduction of racing injuries. It is also to be congratulated for the development of the Jockey Health Information System, the launch of Horse Racing Reform and unwavering commitment to the passage of the Horse Racing Integrity Act of 2019.

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