New York's horse racing industry contends with drug, slaughter scrutiny
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New York's horse racing industry contends with drug, slaughter scrutiny

FROM Mark Lungariello and Frank Esposito,
June 20, 2019

The jockeys walk the stewards through their ride in one of the most controversial Kentucky Derbys in history. Louisville Courier Journal
The industry faces an uncertain future as horse deaths continue here and across the country.

A horse that runs in harness races named Heaven Rocks collapsed in a stall at Buffalo Racetrack on June 4. It was dead by the time a veterinarian arrived, according to New York State’s Equine Death and Breakdown Database.

Two days later, thoroughbred Investment Analyst injured a leg training on the main track at Saratoga Racetrack. It was euthanized, according to the database.

On June 9, Successful Mission was euthanized after it sustained fractures while breezing on Belmont Park’s main track, per the database.

On June 15, harness racer Easy Living collapsed and died while jogging at Monticello Raceway. A day later, Ro Bear died in a Belmont barn from an apparent internal blockage. An investigation is underway, according to the database.

The horse racing industry is under fire for the use of drugs in the sport and even facing accusations that retired animals end up in meat slaughterhouses. A report in May by The Journal News/lohud revealed the growing concerns about horse deaths in the industry in New York and across the country.

The sport is having an existential moment across the country, after a series of deaths at a prominent California track sparked a debate about the morality of the industry.

New York is taking a look inward during the national discussion, while calls echo to establish a national oversight body instead of piecemeal authorities. Today, there are 38 state organizations that oversee horse racing, each with its own set of rules and regulations.

Racehorse Uncle Benny after a morning workout at Belmont Park in Queens Oct. 18, 2018.

The New York State Gaming Commission oversees the sport here, and its executive director Robert Williams was among those who spoke at a state legislative hearing in Albany this month to discuss how New York tracks trend safer than others in the country.

Still, Palmer said, it’s a challenge to identify certain ailments in horses making it “very, very difficult to be able to achieve our aspirational goal of zero.

“What we really strive for is to ensure all avoidable fatalities are addressed,” Williams told lawmakers.

Horse racing remains big business in New York, which has 11 racetracks. The four thoroughbred tracks are among some of the most well known in the country, including Belmont Park, home of the Triple Crown’s Belmont Stakes. There are also seven harness tracks, including Yonkers Raceway at Empire City Casino.

Lawmakers say it has as much as a $1 billion impact in New York, with as many as 19,000 jobs associated with racing across the state. Critics, however, question the numbers and salaries of many of the jobs.

State Sen. Daphne Jordan, a Republican from Saratoga County, said during the hearing many families rely on the industry.

“What do we do about it?” she said. “You can’t just erase all of that.”

A downward trend

With a reported 29 deaths at Santa Anita racetrack in California since December, activists have called for stricter regulation of the industry. Scott Palmer, the state’s equine medical director, said New York already took stock of its own policies in 2012 after a spate of horse deaths at Aqueduct racetrack.

“One of the key questions people ask me every day is ‘Well, how can we keep that from happening in New York?’ ” he said. “Well, the truth of the matter is it’s already happened in New York.”

After a report and recommendations by a state task force appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, horse deaths slowed considerably, he said. There were 32 racing fatalities between January and April 2012, but 16 for the rest of the year after the task force made its recommendations, he said.

Officials said that incidents are down 46% since 2011 at the three tracks operated by the New York Racing Association: Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga.

The most agreed-upon measurement within the industry of a track’s safety is the deaths per 1,000 starts, but horses often are injured and die during training at tracks. Other deaths are logged as “non-racing” deaths attributed to tracks.

ELMONT, NY - JUNE 09: Justify #1, ridden by jockey Mike Smith leads the field around the 4th turn during the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park on June 9, 2018 in Elmont, New York. Justify becomes the thirteenth Triple Crown winner and the first since American Pharoah in 2015.

The average deaths at New York tracks in 2018 was 1.29 per 1,000 starts, below the national average of 1.29 per 1,000. Regulators and track operators say context is important, with thousands of races, training events and horses stabled at tracks.

But critics have said those numbers don’t tell the entire story of how many horses are dying in relation to the industry. And even the total number of deaths at tracks don’t account for horses that may die related to the industry at private tracks, they say

A look at the tracks

Pat Battuello, of the watchdog group Horseracing Wrongs, said there are 5,000 horses that have been killed on U.S. tracks since 2014.

He spoke to lawmakers about abolishing the industry and spoke in graphic details of deaths on the track, describing broken necks, crushed spines and shattered legs where the limb only remains attached by flesh.

“Death at the track is neither clean nor tranquil,” Battuello said.

Belmont had six racing deaths over 6,142 starts, according to The Jockey Club Equine Injury Database, equating to 0.98 deaths per 1,000 starts. That represents a downward trend from 2009 when the track had 14 deaths, or 1.98 deaths per 1,000 starts.

But there were 29 deaths in total in 2018 when counting training and non-race deaths, more than any other New York track in 2018.

Aqueduct had 9 racing deaths in 2018, equating to 1.57 per 1,000 starts — but 15 deaths overall. Its high for racing deaths over the last 10 years was 24 in 2012, or 3.00 per 1,000 starts.

Saratoga had three racing deaths, or 0.97 per 1,000, according to the club. It had 13 horses die overall.

Finger Lakes had 23 deaths throughout the year, Aqueduct had 15 and Saratoga had 13 horses die. The track isn't listed by the Jockey Club, but a spokesman said there have been 10 race fatalities since 2018 over 8,601 starts.

ELMONT, NY - JUNE 08: Belmont Stakes contender Gronkowski looks on during training prior to the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park on June 8, 2018 in Elmont, New York.

Finger Lakes is the one racetrack out of the four major New York tracks not operated by the New York Racing Association. It’s owned by a company called Delaware North, whose chairman, Jeremy Jacobs, also owns TD Garden and the Boston Bruins of the NHL.

Steve Martin, a spokesman, said a thoroughbred adoption program was started in 2006 that it is the first of its kind located on racetrack grounds. A joint venture of the Finger Lake’s Horsemen’s Benevolent Protective Association has helped find homes for more than 700 horses.

“We are continually monitoring our policies and reviewing them with the objective of providing the safest racing environment possible,” Martin said.
The track also regularly tests its surfaces with monthly sampling and has been convening a meeting every three weeks with the track superintendent, veterinarians and others, according to the spokesman.

“The aim is to track emerging horse welfare issues so we can make track adjustments before a more significant issue arises,” Martin said.
More reforms coming?

The increased scrutiny may mean tighter policies on drugs, which industry critics say are being pumped into horses to push them beyond their natural limits. The drugs could also be “stacked” so that they don’t exceed allowable limits, critics say, but have a horse push to complicate a minor injury.

Kraig Kulikowisi, an equine veterinarian, told lawmakers at their hearing that it's trainers and not veterinarians who control the health of horses. Vets see a substantial income if they maintain relationships with trainers who could manage as many as dozens of horses.

“One trainer can offer hundreds of thousands of dollars of revenue and if one veterinarian will not abdicate their better judgment, there is always one that will,” he said.

Resolve won the 2016 $1,000,000 International Trot at Yonkers Raceway Oct. 15, 2016.

Some say that after horses are retired, they often change hands of owners multiple times with many ending up shipped out of the country to be slaughtered. John Holland, president of the Equine Welfare Alliance, estimated that there are 20,000 horses bred a year due to the industry and tens of thousands could end up killed for meat per year.

“When horses and money meet, horses lose.”
- John Holland, president of the Equine Welfare Alliance

“When horses and money meet, horses lose,” Holland said. “It’s just been the way for a long, long time and I’d love to see it change but I’m not sure it can be changed. At the same time, you know, we have to make some improvements.”

Susan Wagner, president and founder of the group Equine Advocates, said ending slaughter would end “indiscriminate” breeding of the animals.

As new restrictions are considered, many advocates called for policies that would penalize trainers, veterinarians and others for violations. They should lose licenses to operate if they are repeat offenders, advocates say.
John Schieb, director of the group Responsible Animal Care, Inc., said often the owners are kept out of the loop themselves.

“No one I know who owns equines outside of racing has to make policies to keep their horses safe from their own barn staffs,” he said. “That’s unique to racing.” 

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