Updated on 03/12/2013 4:38PM

Laurel Park: Breakdown spate has Maryland commission seeking reasons


Horses at Laurel Park in Maryland have been suffering catastrophic injuries this year at a greater rate than the well-publicized series of breakdowns at Aqueduct’s inner-track meeting in 2011-12, according to state racing officials.

At least 17 horses have been euthanized since the meet began Jan. 1, representatives of racetracks and horsemen said. Although that is fewer than the 21 horses who broke down during Aqueduct’s 2011-12 meet, the breakdowns at Laurel have occurred over a nine-week period rather than the 15-week period in New York, and Laurel has been racing three or four days a week rather than Aqueduct’s five-day weeks during 2011-12.

“This is not a freak occurrence,” said Alan Foreman, a Maryland attorney who represents the state horsemen’s group and who was one of four members of a task force that examined the Aqueduct deaths last year. “It’s alarming, and everyone needs to understand that this is an alarming situation that needs to be rectified immediately.”

Tom Chuckas, the president of the Maryland Jockey Club, which owns and operates Laurel and Pimlico, said the track has struggled to find a cause. “I’ve spoken to owners, trainers, and jockeys, and nobody’s got an answer right now,” Chuckas said.

On Monday, the Safety and Welfare Committee of the Maryland Racing Commission released a report examining 10 breakdowns at Laurel that occurred over a five-week period from Jan. 9 to Feb. 15. The four-page report recommended that the state conduct necropsies on all horses who are euthanized and that state veterinarians comply with guidelines developed by a national policy group on conducting pre-race examinations.

The report did not identify a single factor that could account for the rise in catastrophic injuries. According to equine safety officials who study breakdowns, catastrophic injuries have many causes so accurately identifying a single factor to explain even a small set of breakdowns is considered highly unlikely.

According to the report, six of the 10 breakdowns occurred in $5,000 claiming races, the cheapest at the track. In total, nine occurred in races for claiming horses, including a $7,500 starter allowance. The other occurred in a stakes race.

Over the past several years, subsidies from state casinos have pushed up purses at Maryland racetracks, especially in claiming races. Subsidies to purses in all racing states have become a cause for concern to many racing officials and animal-welfare advocates because of the potential to create incentives for horsemen to run unsound horses.

In the report examining the New York deaths, the task force was critical of high purse levels in Aqueduct claiming races, which were raised because of new subsidies from slot machines. The Aqueduct claiming purses were sometimes five times the claiming price. At Laurel, purses for $5,000 claiming races this year were $15,000. A veterinary group has cautioned tracks to limit purses in claiming races to two times the claiming price.

Earlier this year, Maryland’s horsemen petitioned the racing commission to adopt rules that would prohibit a horse from dropping in class after a claim. The rule would also allow a claimed horse who has not run in a race for 180 days or longer to be exempt from being claimed in its first start back. The commission adopted the rule, but it needs to be approved by the state’s General Assembly.

Chuckas said that the MJC plans to push for an additional rule that would prohibit a horse from running within 30 days of a claim in any race with a claiming price that is less than 25 percent higher than the previous claiming price.

In addition, Chuckas said that the MJC has pledged to fund the necropsy program recommended by the report. He noted that the results of the necropsies would be forwarded to the commission for review, rather than the MJC.

According to racing officials, during all of 2012, 21 horses suffered catastrophic injuries at Maryland tracks. Only 10 horses suffered catastrophic injuries in 2011. The breakdowns at Laurel Park this year received little scrutiny outside the state’s relatively small racing community until the report Monday.

The deaths at Aqueduct last year led to heavy criticism of Aqueduct’s operator, the New York Racing Association, and played a factor in the passage of legislation allowing the state to take over the association’s board. A task force conducted a four-month investigation and prepared a report in excess of 200 pages to build an argument for the adoption of dozens of recommendations.

The horses who were euthanized at Aqueduct and Laurel all suffered injuries after racing on a dirt surface. Last week, the release of an analysis of racing-injury data showed that the catastrophic injury rate for racing on dirt was twice the rate of catastrophic injuries on artificial surfaces in 2012.

Foreman, who is leading an effort for states in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast to adopt uniform medication rules and drug-testing policies, noted that current rules in Maryland allow horses to be treated with the diuretic furosemide and a suite of other anti-bleeding medications up to two hours before a race. All other racing jurisdictions prohibit any raceday treatments within four hours of a race, and Maryland is one of only three states that allow any medication other than furosemide to be administered on raceday.

Under the uniform rules, all raceday drugs other than furosemide would be prohibited, and Maryland’s two-hour rule would be changed to a four-hour rule. In addition, the new rules would prohibit the use of clenbuterol and several powerful anti-inflammatory drugs within 14 days of a race. The state is expected to adopt the uniform rules prior to the end of the year.

“In the meantime, Maryland racing needs to take a complete look at what it’s doing right now, and that needs to be done from top to bottom,” Foreman said