What happens when everyone agrees to put the horse first?

Suffolk Downs' last day of live racing. Photo: Barbara D. Livingston.

Committed partnership between Massachusetts stakeholders, operators, and regulators leads to measurable results

Editor’s Note: News about Suffolk Downs in recent weeks and months and focused squarely on the casino licensing process. In the midst of debates over the track’s future – Suffolk conducted its last day of racing on Oct. 4 – another story unfolded at the East Boston track. Dr. Jennifer Durenberger, director of racing for the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, writes on the “experiment” that led to significant reductions in Suffolk’s catastrophic injury rate, among other notable welfare and safety enhancements.


This summer, the Racing Division of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission was invited to present at The Grayson-Jockey Club Foundation’s fifth Safety and Welfare Summit in Lexington, Kentucky. Specifically, we were asked to tell the story about how we’ve been quietly working to strengthen our regulatory structure and veterinary oversight of horse racing since taking the reins from our predecessor agency last January. 

Some might have been surprised to see Massachusetts at this meeting. When most people think of horse racing, they think of the big-league states such as Kentucky, New York, Florida, California, and New Jersey. Racing in states like Massachusetts is sometimes dismissed as minor league, with participants who can’t quite make it elsewhere or – as recently as two years ago – needed some additional medication that wasn’t permitted in the big league states in order to make it onto and get through the course. 

That’s right – through the end of the 2012 racing season, Thoroughbreds competing at Suffolk Downs could receive phenylbutazone on race day. It was an inexcusable asterisk for our industry, and erasing it was priority one. For the 2013 season, we adopted model rules governing veterinary practices and safety standards and got on board with the Mid-Atlantic/New England regional uniform medication initiative. For the 2014 season, we adopted our “Horses First” philosophy, adding a commission-controlled furosemide program and blood gas testing, and becoming the first Commission in the country to endorse a set of welfare guidelines. 

We did a lot more than that. We adopted what we believe are the strictest regulations in the country for working off the veterinarians’ list. Raceday medication conditions apply, and raceday penalties apply to the trainer should there be any findings. Some states still don’t require any testing at all and only two penalize the trainer for a positive test. Why is this important? When we hire regulatory veterinarians, the most critical task we ask them to do is to identify the “at-risk” horse. When they do, they protect that horse by putting it on the veterinarians’ list for further evaluation. When a horse is presented to work off the vets’ list in a condition that potentially masks unsoundness, that’s unacceptable. Additionally, about 25 percent of the horses that run at Suffolk are assessed for post-race soundness in the testing barn. Our veterinarians aren’t shy about putting horses on the list based on what they see there. And although our system is far from perfect, horses that are deemed unsound during training hours also go on the list. 

Our enhanced regulatory structure complemented the existing menu of industry-leading safety initiatives and commitment to aftercare already in place at Suffolk Downs. The operations team at Suffolk had been advocating for regulatory change – particularly on the medication side - for a number of years prior to our arrival. An NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance-accredited facility and the first in the nation to adopt a strict anti-slaughter policy, the Suffolk team understood the important role regulation plays in protecting the safety, welfare and integrity of our sport. We were happy to provide the missing pieces. Those of you who have heard me speak at various conferences throughout the year have heard me refer to this partnership between the regulator and the operator as providing the synergy necessary to support what I refer to as racing’s winning trifecta: 1) Safety initiatives; 2) Sensible, enforceable regulation; and 3) Commitment to aftercare. 

So, have we been successful? We’ll let the preliminary numbers speak for themselves. For the just-concluded 2014 race meeting at Suffolk Downs, the catastrophic injury rate was 1.24 per thousand starts. The post-race drug testing “clear rate” was 99.64 percent. In other words, the percentage of post-race medication findings was just 0.37 percent. None of those findings were for prohibited substances - only overages of controlled therapeutic medications (results through 9/27). These numbers are remarkable for a variety of reasons.

Let’s look first at the catastrophic injury rate for the meet: 1.24 per thousand starts. This is down from 1.73 in 2013 – a nearly 30 percent reduction. While I maintain that this particular metric tells only a small part of a much bigger story about the job we do protecting the overall safety and welfare of our equine athletes, it’s still the easiest number for us as an industry to obtain and compare across jurisdictions – both major league and minor league. Thanks to the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database (EID), which captures data from an amazing 93 percent of all flat racing days, we know that the average catastrophic injury rate in 2013 was 1.9 per thousand starts. That includes all horses – young and old, graded stakes competitors and seasoned claimers, sprinters and routers, turf specialists and mudders. When we separate that by surface, we see a nationwide average of 1.63 catastrophic injuries per thousand turf starters and 2.08 per thousand dirt starters. At Suffolk Downs in 2014, the turf rate was 1.44 and the dirt rate was 1.20 – less than 60 percent of the national average.

Thanks to some of Dr. Tim Parkin’s comprehensive epidemiological analysis of five years of EID data, we know that there are certain risk factors associated with catastrophic injury. Nine have been identified with statistical significance, including older horses, horses making “numerous starts within the past 1-6 months,” and horses entered in claiming races for a tag less than $25,000. It’s no secret that the vast majority of horses competing at Suffolk Downs fit squarely within this profile. For years, Suffolk has welcomed equine athletes in the later stages of their careers and helped transition them once the race was over. Our catastrophic injury rate was achieved amongst a population of some of the highest-risk horses in the country – competing for some of the lowest purses in the country - and stands as a testament to the diligence and dedication of our horsemen and women, the commitment of the Suffolk Downs’ racing operations team and, we hope, the strength of our regulatory program.

Our stakeholders have done all of this while complying with the strictest medication and testing rules in the country. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission was among the first to sign on to the Uniform Medication Initiative, a multi-pronged approach to regulation which includes the adoption of uniform medication rules and tougher penalties for trainers who accrue multiple medication violations and – importantly – utilization of the equine drug testing services of a laboratory that meets heightened international and voluntary industry accreditation standards. In just two years, the rules governing racing at Suffolk Downs went from permitting raceday levels of phenylbutazone in post-race samples to an established threshold of 2 micrograms per milliliter. And that 99.64 percent clear rate for those samples? In 2013, the national average across all jurisdictions was 99.66 percent.

We’ve been calling our nascent efforts in Massachusetts an experiment. What would happen if we adopted and enforced a big-league playbook in a jurisdiction small enough where everyone – owners, coaches, players, and officials alike – felt empowered and that the role they played could really make a difference? That by working together, we could improve on important industry benchmarks? Over the next few months we plan to analyze a number of unique statistics we’ve been compiling this year, with an eye toward recommendations about some innovative new model rules or best practices, should the data appear to support them. In the meantime, we hope we have served as a proud model for what this industry can accomplish when we all keep our eye on the ball.


Dr. Durenberger serves as the operational head of the Racing Division of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission. In that capacity, she oversees and is the responsible regulatory authority for all pari-mutuel and racing-related activities at the Commonwealth’s Standardbred, Thoroughbred, and simulcasting facilities. A 2002 graduate of the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Durenberger served as an association veterinarian for The New York Racing Association from 2003-2008, then worked as a Commission veterinarian for the California Horse Racing Board from 2008-2010 while completing a law degree. Following a term as an association steward at Delta Downs in Louisiana, Dr. Durenberger accepted her current position as Director of Racing for the Massachusetts Gaming Commission in October, 2012. 

Dr. Durenberger is an accredited steward and member of the Racing Officials Accreditation Program Education Committee. She serves on the American Association of Equine Practitioners Ethics and Professional Conduct Committee, the Association of Racing Commissioners International Model Rules Committee and Drug Testing Standards and Practices Committee, and on the Jockey Club’s Racing Equipment and Safety Committee. She currently serves on the executive boards of both the Racing Officials Accreditation Program and the Association of Racing Commissioners International. Some of her most satisfying work comes from her involvement with the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s Safety and Integrity Alliance.

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