03/26/2012 4:38PM

Initial industry responses to Times article are limited


The first article in a series planned by the New York Times examining injuries in horse racing has put the racing world under a harsh spotlight and may have serious consequences for the sport, including the possibility of a renewed push for federal regulation, according to racing officials.

The article, which appeared above the fold on the front page of the Sunday Times with the headline "Mangled Horses, Maimed Jockeys," was the most e-mailed story on the Times website as of early Monday morning. The comments section below the article had drawn more than 480 posts within 36 hours, the majority criticizing the racing industry.

The series is certain to pose additional public-relations problems for racing at a time when the industry is already being buffeted by criticism from animal-welfare groups and other organizations. In the past two weeks, the HBO television series "Luck" was canceled after an uproar caused by the death of a third horse being used in the production of the series, and, in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has called for an investigation into a spate of catastrophic injuries at Aqueduct racetrack.

Officials representing major national racing organizations were said to be conducting conference calls Sunday and Monday to formulate a response, though a comprehensive response is not likely to be issued until the series runs its course.

"The New York Times piece offers a sobering look at certain aspects of horse racing," said Alex Waldrop, the president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, which conducts many of racing's public outreach efforts. Waldrop declined to answer specific questions and said Sunday night that the association planned to issue a response.

The first installment of the series focused on injuries at racetracks in New Mexico, which, according to an analysis conducted by the Times using the results of racing charts for the past three years, had the worst safety record of any state. The article, which noted that all New Mexico tracks operate casinos, incorporated anecdotes of injuries to both Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses, and the data in the analysis appeared to include injuries to both breeds.

Eric Alwan, a spokesperson for Sunland Park, a racetrack and casino in New Mexico that was not prominently mentioned in the article, noted that Sunland is the only track in New Mexico that is accredited by the NTRA's Safety and Integrity Alliance, meeting standards of safety established by the alliance. The article took to task the tracks that have declined to seek accreditation through the alliance, which is voluntary.

"Although we don't agree with everything in the article, we hope that this article will lead to much-needed change in drug regulation in New Mexico horse racing," Alwan said.

The New Mexico Racing Commission, which was criticized in the article for its enforcement of regulations and penalties, said that it would issue a statement in response to the article later this week.

Ruidoso Downs, which was featured prominently in the article, said that it would not comment on the article. Penn National Gaming Inc., the owner of Zia Park, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The last time that racing faced such scrutiny was in the wake of the death of Eight Belles, the filly who broke down shortly after finishing second in the 2008 Kentucky Derby. Her death renewed calls from some U.S. legislators for federal oversight of the sport. Those calls frequently have been led by Rep. Ed Whitfield, a Republican from Kentucky, and Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico.

In a statement Monday, Udall said he would "urge" other legislators to adopt a bill he introduced last year that would regulate racing under the Food and Drug Administration and prohibit the use of the anti-bleeding medication furosemide on race day.
The bill was opposed by most racing organizations when it was introduced last year.

"The sport of horse racing, which, at its best, showcases the majestic beauty of this animal and the athleticism of jockeys, has reached an alarming level of corruption and exploitation," the statement said. "The consequences of inconsistent state-level regulation is an epidemic of animal doping that has led to countless euthanizations of helpless horses and the injury and death of their riders. The Times expose has shined a glaring light on the need for national standards in a sport that reaps gambling profits, but has lacked proper oversight for decades."

The article also cited the recent spate of fatalities at Aqueduct racetrack, and it stated that both Belmont Park and Saratoga "had incident rates higher than the national average last year," citing its data analysis. Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga are operated by the New York Racing Association.

NYRA issued a statement Monday, taking issue with the Times's use of chart notations referring to horses being pulled up, vanned off, or showing signs of lameness as an instance of an injury, contending that in many of those instances a horse has not suffered an injury. The NYRA response also cited three years of statistics released last week by the Jockey Club as part of the Equine Injury Database project that said catastrophic injury rates at Belmont and Saratoga were below the national average for catastrophic injuries.

"The low breakdown rates that both Saratoga and Belmont Park have had over the last three years, as reported in the official Jockey Club Equine Injury Database, demonstrate that they are among the safest racing environments in the country," the statement said. The statement noted that NYRA's three tracks have all been accredited.