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NYRA Highlights Safety Improvements As Racing Begins At Belmont

Saratoga Race Course
Lucas Willard
Saratoga Race Course

With thoroughbred racing again underway at the New York Racing Association’s Belmont Park, NYRA is highlighting safety reforms at its racetracks.

A release Tuesday detailed NYRA’s efforts, instituted in 2013, to maintain safe racing surfaces and assess the health of horses both on and off race days, as well as collaborations with the horseracing industry.

Pat McKenna is a NYRA spokesman.

“I think we’re rightly focused on what it is that we do each and every day to be sure that we’re continuously analyzing our safety procedures and protocols, that we’re listening to outside experts, and evaluating our overall program to be sure that we are taking every possible step to make sure that we’re providing the safest possible environment for our races,” said McKenna.

The Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs is set for Saturday, one of the biggest racing days of the year. But this year the race comes after a lot of negative press surrounding the horse racing industry.  Critics have decried the 23 horse racing deaths over a three-month period that led to the temporary closure of Santa Anita in California. That number does not include training deaths.

NYRA is highlighting figures from the Jockey Club industry group that show its fatality rate of .86 per 1,000 starts for the recently concluded meet at Aqueduct is about half the national average of 1.68 per 1,000 starts. For 2018, NYRA’s fatality rate was 1.20 per 1,000 starts.

But Pat Battuello of the group Horseracing Wrongs says the numbers generated by the Jockey Club can be misleading.

“Right off the bat, they do not include any training deaths. In addition, it’s a voluntary database. Most tracks participate but some don’t,” said Battuello.

McKenna says equine health and safety are of the highest priority at NYRA.

“Between an emphasis on constantly improving and analyzing the racing surfaces, matched with the team of world-class veterinarians that are experts in their field employed here at NYRA, these are two of the more important aspects of how it is that we take care of horse and rider,” said McKenna.

Battuello dismisses that messaging.

“This is what happens every time there is a string of deaths at a high-profile track, like Santa Anita this year, like Saratoga back in 2017, Del Mar the previous two summers to that…the industry starts scrambling,” said Battuello.

The summer racing meet at Saratoga, now expanded, is approaching, and in July all eyes will be focused on the Spa.

Representative Paul Tonko, a Democrat from the 20th House District that includes Saratoga Springs, is hoping again this year that Congress will take up his Horse Racing Integrity Act, co-authored with Representative Andy Barr, a Republican from Kentucky.

The bill would establish a uniform anti-doping and medication control program that would be developed and enforced by an independent board.

Tonko says Congress has the ability to make a difference before the thoroughbred racing season returns to upstate New York.  

“The tragic incidents of late just are a signal, they’re a call for action here that our bill has spent many years investing in. And we’re growing a lot of support,” said Tonko.

NYRA supports the bill and also recently joined a coalition of racetrack operators who plan to phase out the use of an anti-bleeding medication commonly called Lasix. The drug has been at the center of the race-day medication debate. As part of the voluntary rules that are set to take effect January 1, 2020, two-year-old horses cannot be treated with the drug 24 hours before a race. Beginning in 2021, the rule will apply to all horses in any stakes race.

Also in 2021, Triple Crown races will be run with new rules on race-day drugs. Critics say horses can be run more often, and through pain, when medicated — leading to breakdowns.

Battuello is among those who say one death is too many. He asks: What happens even if horse racing deaths are reduced by half?

“Would that then be acceptable to the American public?”

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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