09/28/2012 3:42PM

Crist: Even-handed Aqueduct breakdown report disappoints Chicken Littles

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The past week was a rare and remarkable one for New York racing in that the positive just may have nosed out the negative to provide a net gain for the sport and its horses.

A week that began with an inane trial balloon from politicians, to bid out the state’s tracks to new owners or managers, ended with the release of a comprehensive report on breakdowns at Aqueduct last winter that did two important things: It made reasonable and forward-looking proposals that deserve implementation, while also discrediting some of the uninformed and hysterical speculation and rhetoric surrounding the sensitive issue of equine welfare.

On Monday, the New York Post’s Albany columnist, Frederick U. Dicker, reported breathlessly that “Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo, in a startling move, has decided to ‘privatize’ the running of the famed Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga tracks.” Dicker, who is Cuomo’s authorized biographer, went on to quote unnamed Cuomo administration officials to the effect that the governor had decided that it would be best if entities such as Churchill Downs or Santa Anita (Formula One and Madison Square Garden were also mentioned) would take over the tracks.

The scariest thing about the story is that it was clearly floated by people completely unfamiliar with the recent history of New York racing or the realities of the national racing industry. Churchill Downs Inc. and The Stronach Group, which operates Santa Anita, have no interest in managing the New York tracks and did not bid to own them when the franchise was up for grabs over the past decade. Nor is there any reason to believe that either company would do a better or cheaper job than the highly regulated, not-for-profit New York Racing Association does.

The whole proposition was ludicrous and within days the governor’s men were backing off it as a done deal or as anything more than something that the new NYRA board might consider among many options.

Friday’s release of the Aqueduct breakdown report was organized and presented by the governor’s office, but had to disappoint those who had hoped for a scathing indictment of NYRA or the racing industry for the spike in racing fatalities last winter. The report made 36 recommendations in a broad range of areas, ranging from increasing the withdrawal times for some corticosteroids; structural reorganization of the relationship between racing offices and veterinarians; and increased oversight by independent medical regulators. The authors of the report, however, repeatedly stressed that the shortcomings they found were endemic to racing nationwide and not to New York in particular, and that the structural flaws had been in place for decades and were not the result of recent management decisions.

The authors – three of whom (Alan Foreman, Dr. Scott Palmer, and Dr. Mary Scollay) spoke at length during the press conference – also debunked many of the theories that have been advanced about the breakdowns, particularly by those who believe that various widely accepted therapeutic medications are at the heart of the problem.

Foreman specifically noted that there was no correlation between the the use of phenylbutazone or furosemide (Salix) and the breakdowns, and he rejected the perception that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications are inherently dangerous: “These are not, as have been referred to by others, ‘powerful painkillers,’ ” a reference to The New York Times’s boilerplate language for them.

He also noted that of 7,106 samples tested from horses competing last winter during the period of increased breakdowns, there was not a single positive for an illegal or prohibited medication, and only five positives for overages of therapeutic drugs.

The press conference was not entirely free of politics. Cuomo’s new lead spokesman on racing, a state operations official named Howard Glaser, twice attempted to portray the governor’s imminent dismantling of the State Racing and Wagering Board, to be folded into a larger gambling regulation body that will also oversee casinos and lotteries, as a part of the solution. No one can figure out how that move can possibly help racing or the increased oversight the report recommends, and the report’s authors were silent on that topic.

Nobody is going to be entirely pleased with the report: the state did not get its desired red meat on NYRA’s supposed transgressions; NYRA may find some of the recommendations overly critical; and some horsemen will grumble about increased record-keeping and intrusiveness. That’s a pretty good sign that the report was indeed independent of undue political influence and probably makes sense.

That’s what can happen when you give well-informed experts, rather than power brokers and zealots, the time and resources to investigate fully and fairly and make constructive decisions based on facts and science. It might even be the way to run racing going forward.