Updated on 12/16/2014 10:02AM

For NYRA, spate of fatalities brings back bad recent memories

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. – There have been six racing fatalities through the first seven days of the Aqueduct inner-track meet, bringing back haunting memories of the 2011-12 season, when there were 21 fatalities in a four-month span.

The recent fatalities have brought the number of equine deaths suffered at the New York Racing Association’s three tracks in 2014 to 33, according to the New York State Gaming Commission’s Equine Breakdown, Injury and Incident Database. NYRA officials on Friday expressed concern about the recent fatalities but maintain that the number of catastrophic racing injuries – which they put at 22 – equals the second smallest in a quarter-century.

Nine of the 33 fatalities, NYRA officials said, are classified as “sudden death” from something such as a cardiovascular collapse or a broken neck suffered in a fall where the horse was not euthanized. NYRA classified two additional deaths as being unrelated to racing.

“We are watching. We don’t think at this stage that we’re in a red-alert situation and that 2012 is going to repeat itself,” said Martin Panza, NYRA’s senior vice president of racing operations. “But we can’t predict the future.”

The fatalities from 2011-12 prompted Gov. Andrew Cuomo to form the New York Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety. That task force made a number of recommendations that NYRA has implemented and that the company believes have helped reduce fatalities, including stricter pre-race examinations.

“My people are doing everything, pre-race exams, ontrack observations, everything. If we don’t like something, you’re getting scratched, and the trainers can scream, but nobody comes and tells me not to do it,” said Dr. Anthony Verderosa, NYRA’s chief examining veterinarian. “Martin knows not to do that. We do our jobs. Everybody backs us up. When horses are at speed, and you got 18,000 starts a year, you’re going to have some unfortunate incidences, and the numbers right now – and I hate to put it in those terms – are not that bad.”

According to statistics provided by NYRA, the 22 catastrophic racing injuries is the same number as last year. The lowest number of catastrophic racing injuries in the last decade was 21 in 2004. In 2012, there were 38.

Officials and horsemen do not believe there is a safety issue with the inner track.

“We’ve had no complaints from [the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association] or the jockeys about track surface, so it fully leads us to believe that there is nothing going on with the track surfaces,” Panza said.

Both David Jacobson, whose horse Ludo Bagman suffered fractured sesamoids and had to be euthanized Thursday, and Rudy Rodriguez, whose horse Sage Valley died from cardiovascular collapse Wednesday, said the track is safe.

“A lot of people criticize the track. They don’t know what they’re looking at,” said Rodriguez, who gets on eight or nine horses each morning. “The track has been very safe.”

Dr. Scott Palmer, a member of the 2012 Task Force and now the state’s equine medical director, said NYRA still remains under the average of 2.0 per 1,000 starters in terms of catastrophic injuries, but he did say he is concerned about the recent deaths.

“Am I concerned? Absolutely,” Palmer said. “The word’s out to the trainers, ‘For crying out loud, be careful.’ This is a big, big concern, not just from the horse standpoint, but from the jockey standpoint as well.”

During Saratoga, where there were eight deaths – four of which were musculoskeletal in nature – Palmer issued a press release stating there would be a “thorough investigation” of all racing fatalities.

“All of those cases are in the review process, and we will issue a report for that when we’re done with that,” Palmer said Friday.

In regard to the increase in cardiovascular-related deaths, Palmer mentioned one possible extra pre-race examination that could be added would be a one-lead EKG that is done using an I-Phone.

However, Verderosa said that more research would be needed for that to be used at NYRA.

“It’s a long way from being put into any practical use,” Verderosa said. “I work on the practical side.”

One area where Verderosa and Palmer agreed was perhaps opening up tracks, such as Aqueduct’s inner track, earlier than had been previously done to let horses adapt to the new surface before racing starts.

“If a horse’s skeleton does not adapt to the surface it runs over, little things that are there that can’t be seen or felt even to the trainer – in their defense – they will sometimes turn into big things like catastrophic injuries,” Verderosa said.