On a cold February afternoon, Sheeds Paisley galloped out onto the inner track at Aqueduct Race Track in the ninth race of the day. Moments later, the filly collapsed on the track, its jockey thrown from the horse, hurt and carried off the track on a stretcher. Sheeds Paisley was euthanized.
Two days later, Skorton, a gelding, marched up to the gate in the fourth race of the day. When the race started, he sprinted, but quickly faded. Moments later he fell on the same inner track, suffering a fatal injury that forced his euthanization.
Twenty-four hours before Sheeds Paisley died on the track, Fortydeuce, running in his fifth career start took the gate in the fifth race of the day. Moments later, he suffered a massive injury and was euthanized.
Within the first five days of February 2012, three horses were dead at Aqueduct Race Track, but they were not the only ones. These three horses were the sixth, seventh and eighth to die on Aqueduct’s inner track in 2012. Before the end of April, a total of 22 would die since Jan. 1, with a handful more already having lost their lives before the start of the year — Aqueduct’s season starts in November and lasts through the spring. Though it is not uncommon for racehorses to suffer life-ending injuries during a race — filly Eight Belles was notably euthanized after breaking both legs during the 2008 Kentucky Derby — the number of euthanizations at Aqueduct triggered a number of red flags. Horses who suffer leg injuries, such as broken bones, are usually euthanized because the animal needs to stand for its blood to flow properly, and leg injuries, which can force a horse into a cast, could eventually cause the horse to die of organ failure due to poor circulation.
The rise in horse deaths at Aqueduct led Gov. Cuomo to appoint a task force to look into what was going wrong. The group — named the New York Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety — which looked at the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the horses, analyzed the causes and reviewed horse claiming rules, the process by which purses are set, as well as veterinary procedures and drug use. The task force was also asked to recommend actions that would prevent further equine deaths at New York Racing Association racetracks.
The task force, which reviewed the injuries and deaths of 21 of the horses at Aqueduct between November 2011 and April 2012, issued its findings late last month, and in a 209-page report said there was no “single root cause” for the deaths at Aqueduct, that the cause of the carnage was “a perfect storm” of factors including issues with the NYRA’s structure, inflated purses, drugged horses and incoherent and disorganized pre-race protocol.
“The Task Force has spent countless hours analyzing the circumstances of each equine death at Aqueduct,” said task force Chairman Scott Palmer in a prepared statement. “We found multiple factors that created a ‘perfect storm’ of conditions that caused these tragic breakdowns. We have produced realistic recommendations that will make a lasting difference in racehorse health and safety.”
The task force’s report outlined an array of problems that led to the horse deaths at Aqueduct last winter. In one of its findings, the panel suggested that horses that should not have been racing, including Fortydeuce and Skorton, had higher purses attached to them, incentivizing their trainers to run them despite their risky physical condition. The task force suggested a connection between the higher purses and the income coming to NYRA from Resorts World New York City Casino, which opened at Aqueduct last October.
The report also finds that in many cases, horses were given corticosteroids — essentially steroids used to alleviate joint pain — which makes it more difficult for veterinarians to determine if a horse is fit to race. According to the document, some jockeys who knew the horses they were riding were not up to par kept quiet, fearing retaliation or discipline. The task force also said NYRA’s veterinary practice was flawed because it reported directly to the Racing Office, which the report suggested would not necessarily have the horse’s health as a top priority.
All of the deaths analyzed in the report took place on Aqueduct’s inner track and the report suggested that NYRA investigate the winter conditions on that track, which the association agreed to do.
As a result of the task force’s findings, Gov. Cuomo ordered an overhaul of horse and jockey safety measures at NYRA tracks last Friday.
“New York is committed to placing the health, safety and welfare of the equine athlete as the top priority of horse racing,” Cuomo said. “As we bring accountability and responsible business practices to horse racing, these recommendations will be an integral part of a new and improved racing product. I have requested the Racing and Wagering Board to promptly adopt the changes identified by the Task Force to create a safety-conscious environment for racehorses. I sincerely thank the members of the Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety for their important work.”
Included among the changes implemented by the governor’s order are: creation of an Equine Medical Director Office that will oversee horse health and safety; creation of an independent veterinary structure within NYRA, reporting directly to its CEO; establishing a mechanism by which jockeys can anonymously report health or safety violations; and limiting or prohibiting a number of drugs or setting a time frame in which drugs cannot be administered to horses before a race, and expanding drug testing to include corticosteroids and clenbuterol — used for performance enhancing.
Further new regulations include requiring trainers to maintain records of corticosteroid administrations, changing the claiming rules to void claims if a horse dies, limiting purse-to-claim ratios to deincentivize racing horses with potential health problems, improving documentation of fatal injuries and setting up standard protocols for postmortems on horses suffering those injuries.
John Sabini, chairman of the Racing and Wagering Board and a former state senator from Jackson Heights, said his agency would incorporate the new rules.
“The recommendations put forth by this task force are strong and effective responses to the equine fatalities at Aqueduct,” he said, adding that the board stands ready to incorporate the full report into our policies and procedures.”