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Politics and Government

Report finds half of racing horse deaths were preventable

A report by the Cuomo admisntration on the death of 21 horses at a New York racing course concludes that half of the deaths could have been prevented.   The task force was appointed by Governor Andrew Cuomo following a spate of horse deaths at the winter meet at Aqueduct. The investigators, which included horse racing experts and veterinarians, did not find any evidence of criminal wrong doing. Rather, they concluded what one task force member says was a “perfect storm” of circumstances that led to the deaths and that highlight a number of questionable practices.  

Director of State Operations Howard Glaser says those practices will need to change.  “The health of horses and safety of riders cannot finish a distant second,” Glaser said.

One key factor in the deaths, says Alan Foreman of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, was the steep increase in the value of horse racing purses, due to more money available from the gambling racinos installed at the Aqueduct raceway in recent years.  That reportedly led to owners and trainers pushing lesser performing and in some cases, sick horses, too hard in order to race in contests beyond their capacity.  In what’s known as claiming races, where owners list the price at which they will sell their horse for after the race, the amount of the purse was sometimes more than the value of the often ailing horse, says Foreman.  He says the economic model reduced the horses to a “disposable commodity.”

In addition, some horses apparently were pumped with a cocktail of drugs including corticosteroids, anti-inflammatory medicines and others that masked the true degree of their injuries when they were examined by veterinarians.

The task force did not find any use of illicit drugs, though they say post-mortem exams were not performed on the horses and they did not have access to blood or urine samples.

But perhaps the biggest factor in the deaths, say task force members, was the weather. The unrelenting drought dried out the track and made the surface more hard-packed. There were fewer cancelations of training sessions and races due to rain, which in the past gave horses a chance to rest.

Recommendations for change include limiting the use of drugs for one to three weeks before a race, and making veterinarians more independent from the money-making side of the business. Currently, vets report to the racing association. The task force believes that is a conflict of interest and that they should instead report to the state’s racing oversight board, and that an office of equine medical director should be established.  

The task force found that jockeys are sometimes reluctant to speak up when a horse is sick, for fear of economic reprisals. They recommend a 24-hour anonymous hotline for whistleblowers.

The report comes as Cuomo prepares to take over the troubled New York Racing Association.  A new law permits the governor to appoint all new board members, and run the operation for three years, before handing it back to an independent association.

State Operations Director Glaser says working harder to prevent unnecessary deaths of horses will be a major priority of the new board.

The governor has not yet named the new racing board.

The recommended changes also come as the state gets ready to greatly expand all kinds of gambling in New York. There has already been partial passage of a constitutional amendment to permit up to seven new, private gambling casinos and resorts across the state.