Updated on 10/01/2012 5:54PM

NYRA and state regulators agree to changes after critical report on Aqueduct deaths

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The New York Racing Association and state regulators agreed to make substantial changes in veterinary and medication practices after the release Friday of a task force’s report that said some of the deaths of 21 horses during the Aqueduct inner-track meet last winter could have been prevented.

The report, which runs 208 pages with appendices, is an exhaustive investigation into the circumstances surrounding the deaths, which were double the average rate of catastrophic breakdowns at inner-track meets over the previous three years. Though the report did not point to a single factor explaining why the deaths spiked, it covered a panoply of risk factors that could have played a role in the breakdowns, including an over-reliance by trainers on painkillers, a conflict of interest between Aqueduct management and its veterinarians, and a rapid run-up in purses that may have “incentivized poor management decisions” by horsemen.

“The task force did not find a single factor to account for the injuries, but rather a perfect storm of superimposed layers of factors,” said Dr. Scott Palmer, the chairman of the task force who is an equine surgeon and a past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners.

::New York Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety

The results of the report were announced at a news conference in Albany attended by three of the four members of the task force and several members of the administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who pushed for an investigation into the deaths. Both the New York Racing Association, which operates Aqueduct, and the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, which regulates racing, said they would adopt the recommendations.

The task force was convened last spring after eight horses died at Aqueduct during an 18-day period in March, bringing the total number of deaths at the meet to 21 (two of the deaths did not occur during a race). In addition to Palmer, the task force members were Alan Foreman, a lawyer and the chairman of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association; Jerry Bailey, the retired Hall of Fame rider; and Dr. Mary Scollay-Ward, the equine medical director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. Bailey did not attend the news conference.

The investigation into the injuries coincided with an effort by the Cuomo administration to exert more influence over the operations at NYRA, which has a franchise to run racing at Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga through 2033. Earlier this year, Gov. Cuomo pushed through legislation requiring a takeover of the NYRA board by state appointees for a three-year period, partly in response to the injuries and partly for a takeout error in which NYRA overcharged bettors.

According to the task force, 11 of the 21 horses that died during the meet had displayed factors that represented a “missed opportunity” to prevent their deaths, including two instances in which the jockeys of the horses said that they believed the horses were unsound before running but did not communicate those fears to veterinary personnel. In addition, the report states that many of the horses had been treated with multiple painkillers while training before their fatal starts, a regimen that may have complicated the ability of veterinarians and trainers to recognize musculoskeletal problems that might have otherwise been evident.

Although the report’s authors said there was no clear evidence that medication use contributed to breakdowns, the report raises serious questions about the state of horsemanship on the backstretches of New York racetracks and in the U.S. racing industry as a whole. Pointedly, the report states that trainers were in large part responsible for dictating the treatments horses received and that many of the treatments were administered without a veterinary diagnosis of a specific problem, in contradiction to both veterinary ethics and racing board requirements.

“In many cases, the medical records provided to the Task Force were not compliant with NYSRWB rules by failing to provide medical justification for the procedure performed,” the report said.

The report was critical of the role that NYRA’s racing office could play in the evaluation of horses for racing soundness. According to the report, NYRA’s veterinary department reported to the racing office, creating a clear conflict of interest because of the racing office’s role in trying to maximize the number of horses entered in races and the veterinarians’ responsibility to request that horses with suspect conditions be scratched.

In one instance, according to the report, an unidentified trainer asked the racing office to bar a specific veterinarian from performing pre-exams on the trainer’s horses, and the request was granted. Also, NYRA’s vets were “instructed that significant findings, such as detection of heat/fever in a limb, resistance to palpation or flexion, or subtle lamenesses, were not to be included in a horse’s regulatory record,” perhaps because of concerns over how that would affect claiming activity.

“It is troubling that a lay person had the ability to direct veterinary activity,” Dr. Scollay said at the news conference. “That oversight needs to be moved from the racing office, and the stewards should be the only ones allowed to process vet scratches.”

Howard Glaser, Cuomo’s director of state operations, said that NYRA’s veterinary department would now report to the association’s chief executive officer and the association’s board. The report said that NYRA should amend its mission statement to make safety of horses a primary concern.

The deaths occurred during the first meet in which NYRA began to use payments from a casino that opened in October 2011 to boost purses. The report noted that substantial increases to purses in claiming races may have influenced trainers to enter horses that may not have been sound. Seventeen of the 21 deaths occurred in or after a horse raced in a claiming race.

“An unintended consequence of the increase in claiming purses was a relative ‘devaluation’ of the horse, whereby the purse was of substantially greater value than the horse competing for it,” the report said.

The report also stated that a rapid run-up in claiming activity accompanying the purse increases had put horses at risk because veterinary records were not shared when horses changed barns, limiting the ability of trainers to assess a horse’s health and soundness and leading to redundant administrations of joint medications.

In some cases, the purses of the races in which the horses died were more than five times the claiming price. The task force said that the racing and wagering board should pass a rule limiting the ratio of purse to claiming price to 1.6, which would mean the winner’s share of the purse would be equal to the claiming price. In April, the state racing and wagering board had passed a rule limiting purses in claiming races to two times the claiming price.

In recommending changes to medication procedures, the task force pressed for a ban on the administration of a powerful corticosteroid, methylprednisolone acetate, within 15 days of a race, along with a ban on injections directly into the joint of all other corticosteroids within seven days of a race. The authors of the report said that the 15-day ban on methylprednisolone was warranted due to scientific evidence that the drug can have a “degradative” effect on joint tissue, unlike the other corticosteroids.

The report noted that many of the horses who died had received injections of corticosteroids into joints, but trainers and veterinarians did not report the injections to stewards before the horses were entered to race, in violation of a state rule. The report said that rule must be enforced.

Rick Violette, president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, said Friday that the horsemen have already endorsed the recommended changes regarding corticosteroid use.

The task force also recommended that the bronchial dilator clenbuterol be banned within 21 days of a race, rather than within 96 hours of a race, noting that it “learned that a large number of the horses at NYRA tracks were being administered daily doses of clenbuterol, albeit in compliance with the [96-hour] rule.” Though clenbuterol is ostensibly prescribed for treatment of chronic lung problems, many trainers use the drug as a substitute for banned anabolic steroids because of its ability to build muscle mass when used regularly.

The task force recommended that all horses who die at NYRA tracks be subjected to a post-race necropsy; that the racing and wagering board hire an equine medical director (the board said the position will be created and filled); and that NYRA consider the installation of a synthetic racetrack at Aqueduct. Unlike many other racing states that require necropsies on all horses that die at racetracks, New York does not have such a program. The recommendation to consider a synthetic track at Aqueduct was based on the declines in catastrophic breakdowns at tracks that have installed the surfaces where weather conditions are similar to those at Aqueduct.