01/10/2015 8:57PM

Aqueduct meet will proceed as planned

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - With management and horsemen committing to be more vigilant and with a planned re-examination of an inner track it already deems safe, the New York Racing Association plans to go on with the remainder of Aqueduct’s winter meet schedule as is, officials said Saturday afternoon.

Saturday’s card was canceled - the fourth straight cancellation - due in part to the cold temperatures but also due to the fact there have been 11 equine fatalities in the first 20 days of the inner track meet.

“Last year, we might have run on a day like today,” Martin Panza, NYRA’s senior vice president of racing operations, said. “Currently, it doesn’t make much sense.”

Panza was hopeful that live racing would resume Sunday when temperatures were expected to get back into the 30s.

NYRA has instituted two breaks - one in December and one in March - in hopes of keeping its horse population fresher. In a lengthy press release issued Saturday, NYRA indicated it would talk with state regulators about possibly reducing the “number of required race days at Aqueduct.”  NYRA claims it is mandated to run 120 days at Aqueduct, a period that includes both the fall and spring meets run over the main track.

Panza said Saturday he is not inclined to reduce the schedule already in place for this winter, which includes five-day race weeks until the end of February when it changes to four-day race weeks for a four-week period.

“That’s an option, but we’re not there yet,” Panza said of cutting more days.

On Saturday, NYRA management and a handful of trainers and owners met for two hours at Aqueduct to discuss the high rate of incidents at the meet.

Horsemen agreed to be more stringent in horses they enter while racing officials said they would be stricter in horses they allow to race. Further, both horsemen and management said they would encourage jockeys to express concerns to Dr. Anthony Verderosa, NYRA’s chief examining veterinarian before a race if they feel uncomfortable with a horse they are riding.

“We met with the jockeys last Sunday and will do that again to continue to express to them that if they don’t like the way a horse feels to them to take it the gate and let Doc look at it,” Panza said. “The trainers volunteered that they’re going to be a little more stringent on their horses in entering. In the [racing] office, we’ll continue to go through and try to weed things out.”

On Friday, Panza told Daily Racing Form that racing secretary Dan Eidson has comprised a list of about 20 horses who will no longer be permitted to race at NYRA tracks.

In a press release issued by the New York Thoroughbred Horseman’s Association following the meeting, trainer Rick Violette, president of NYTHA, said, “We are also reaching out to all trainers to proceed with extreme caution. There is no margin for error when the safety of horse and rider are at stake.”

Violette also put some onus on the jockeys. Two of the fatalities came as a result of a spill, one that was caused by pilot error.

“We are also asking the stewards to raise the bar on the conduct of the jockeys during the running of the race, and heighten their expectations of the standard of riding, especially where safety is concerned,” Violette said in the release.

Violette, along with trainers David Jacobson, Rudy Rodriguez, Bruce Brown, Steve Klesaris, Pat Kelly, Linda Rice, and Richard Schosberg, and owners Steve Zorn and Joe Applebaum were the horsemen present at the meeting. NYRA officials included Panza, Glen Kozak, vice president/racing surfaces, Verderosa, NYRA’s chief examining veterinarian, and Hugh Gallagher, NYRA’s safety steward and NYRA steward Braulio Baeza Jr. Dr. Scott Palmer New York state’s equine medical director, participated by phone.

Both management and horsemen were unwavering in their belief that the inner track is safe.

 “None of the guys training at Aqueduct think it’s a racetrack issue,” said Violette, who has a full barn of horses at Aqueduct. “That being said it’s going to get re-examined to underline that.”

Panza said that in the next week to 10 days a special machine will be brought in to examine the cushion and the base of the track. However, Panza said that those areas have already been checked and double-checked and the track has been deemed safe.

“Everybody in unison believes the track is in good shape, but you can never be too careful,” Panza said.

Kozak said that he and his staff are following the same protocols they have in the past, including implementing recommendations that were made in 2012 by the New York Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety. That Task Force was formed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo following the winter meet of 2011-12 in which there were 21 equine fatalities.

“What more we can do? That’s what we’re trying to figure out,” Kozak said.

Kozak said that Dr. Mick Peterson, executive director of the Racing Surfaces Testing Lab, evaluated the inner track both before the meet started and again on Jan. 4-5 and said the surface was consistent.

“The consistency of the cushion is identical to last year; what’s on the [Belmont] training track as well,” Kozak said. “These horses are running on the same cushion they’re running on over at Belmont on the training tack. With the limestone bases, the two similarities between the two tracks are very, very, very close.”

On Friday, NYRA canceled after the second race, one in which two horses broke down. Apex sustained a broken ankle and had to be euthanized. Italian Rules was pulled up and diagnosed with a torn suspensory. He will no longer race and there is hope that he can be saved.