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Steven Crist: Safety a disingenuous reason for NYRA date reduction
By Steven Crist
There were plenty of good reasons for Aqueduct to cut back to a four-day racing week for the rest of the winter – just not the one that the New York Racing Association cited when it announced the reduction Thursday and which is now being widely reported as its reason for doing so.
The three-sentence press release issued by the NYRA on Thursday said that eliminating five Wednesday and one Thursday card over the next five weeks “was one of several equine safety initiatives approved by the NYRA board at its most recent meeting.”
So “Safety Cited as Races Dropped at Aqueduct” was the headline in The New York Times the next day. The Daily News went with “Aqueduct gets NYRA OK to Reduce Schedule after Mysterious Horse Deaths” over an article that began “The New York Racing Association took a step Thursday it hopes will reduce the number of horse fatalities this winter – reduce the number of racing days.”
The takeover of New York racing by a state-controlled New York Racing Reorganization Board last December has been focussed on improving equine safety, and a raft of new protocols has been introduced in an effort to minimize risks. It is a commendable priority, but one that should not be invoked in self-congratulatory fashion every time an operational change is made.
To claim that eliminating some race programs is a safety initiative is disingenuous and sends a completely false message about the sport in general and Aqueduct in particular – that it is inherently and unacceptably unsafe and that the only way to reduce risk is to have less racing.
This is entirely at odds with what the state’s own panels and task forces have found – that a spike in accidents and fatalities last winter had nothing to do with the safety of the Aqueduct inner track or the number of races being run over it. Fewer races means fewer opportunities for accidents and a greater opportunity for the state to proclaim that it has made racing “safer.”
This is not, however, why Aqueduct is running fewer dates. Nearly every other track in the country has cut back from five days a week to four, or four to three, because of an ongoing national horse shortage amid declining foal crops. An additional factor in New York this winter has been the institution of new regulations extending the cutoff time before a race that certain drugs can be administered, particularly the bronchodilator clenbuterol. As a result, ship-ins from neighboring states with looser rules have declined by 75 percent this winter, reducing the average field size from 7.9 a year ago to 6.9 now.
This has left the racing office scrambling to fill races and resulted in a weaker, less appealing product. For that reason alone, cutting back to four days a week made perfect sense, and it had nothing to do with safety or mysterious horse deaths.
The progress being made here is not in the field of equine welfare but in streamlined government response. In the past when NYRA wanted to reduce its racing schedule, it had to go through a lengthy process of hearings and applications and was opposed by state regulators and local politicians who somewhat fancifully claimed it would have negative economic impact on the surrounding community. Now that the NYRA is temporarily being run by the state, it took only six days for its resolution at a board meeting to be formally approved by the state Racing and Wagering Board.
The other danger of mischaracterizing the reason for the change is that it will encourage the movement, which has some support among the newer members of the NYRA board, to get rid of winter racing at Aqueduct altogether. They wish that every day of racing in New York could be like a Saturday at Saratoga, but that is an impractical fantasy. By definition, only the top sliver of the horse population can race at the game’s highest level, and there have to be seasons and venues for those of lesser quality to race.
This is not only a fact of the sport but also its economic foundation: the betting handle and the purses paid out on run-of-the-mill races support the higher-end events. Despite its lack of appeal to some well-heeled horse owners, off-peak racing remains popular with the customers: Last February, Aqueduct racing accounted for just 5 percent of the races run across the country, but attracted 30 percent of the national betting handle for the month.
The Big A is essentially a TV screen nationwide - for bleary-eyed gamblers sitting in cheap chairs at mostly dark race tracks and wanting to shove money into the slots of automated tellers. IF this was truly a professional sport, you wouldn't find so much marketing to make a Class AA - or worse - product appear to be the big show.
The increase of catastrophic injuries has increased incrementally with the onset of year round racing and is the primary culprit and may be one reason that the numbers of ontrack attendees has shrunken. There can be too much of a good thing and that leads to apathy. With no break between meets, horses, which are not machines, have no chance to recover and so medication is used to compensate for what mother nature could do naturally. There is no logical reason, other than filling the pockets of racing entities, that racing should be year round. Back in the day there wias little racing during the winter and breaks between meets. Horses were let down from roughly November to Janaury and the racing that went on began at Hot Springs, then moved to Kenturcky. There was racing in Florida and Havana, Cuba which was absolutely preferred over winter racing in New York or New England. California spread the racing around the state with a break of three to four weeks between meets. That has gone the way of the dodo bird. If one went back and checked the numbers of breakdowns in the glory years of racing, one would be astounded. I remember a horse called Staff Writer who was a focus on national TV for his inherent soundness problems wheich eventurally let to his euthanizing. When the bottom line is the bottom line, there will be no changes and remember Buddy Jacobson who said in the 70's that a horse was a machine to make money and when the machine broke down, just get another machine. He was ruled off and disappeared. We now have a host of those who believe the same way and who do run horses that should not be raced to get that last dollar out of them. Basic changes need to be made. Shortening the racing week is a beginning but a better one would be to mandate a minimumm of thirty days between race meets to let the heroes of the track, the horses, revitalize and recuperate. It won't happen but it needs to.
I agree with Steve, the industry needs Winter racing, but some changes need to be made. First, get rid of that ridiculous inner-dirt track. It limits options, like no 7 furlong races, for example. Also, I don't understand who keeps saying it is a safe track, since most of the fatalities happen over this surface. Second, other tracks race 12 months of the year over the same surface, like Parx (Philadelphia Park), racing cheaper horses, and they don't seem to have these problems of horese breaking down. Run the races on the Main track at Aqueduct, and I think it will be fine. As far as the small fields, and the shortage of horses, then run 8 races a day, instead of 9, like they do in California. Finally, Aqueduct needs to funnel some of the money from the Racino into capital improvements for the racetrack, which is what they always promise to do when a racino is proposed, but seldom follow through.
Steve, fabulous article & straight to the point................Bert D
Here's a great way to forge safety in NY during the winter - DON'T RACE. Close everything down from Thanksgiving to March 1. It's a second-rate product in miserable weather.
As I have stated in a reply, a big problem at the big A in winter is green young 3 year old horses and older injured claiming horses. Add to this the fact that the majority of the experienced star jockeys have also left NY with the good horses for Fla. This leaves us with a lot of jockeys out of school and also some older jockeys who never made much of a name for themselves. Yes, we have some good ones like the Ortiz brothers and Jr A but we simply don't have the stars of the sport in the winter. The big A needs to offer an incentive to trainers to keep the good horses in NY for the Winter and if the good horses stay I believe that jocks like John V. and the others will also stay. I don't think the problem lies with the track surface, or the decor of the clubhouse and grandstands.
Hi Steve, Aqueduct is obsolete and a disgrace to the NY Racing Calendar! When I visit NYC with Family or Friends, I never visit he big AQU for Racing or Simulcasting. I may take them to Casino next door for some solid gaming action but not racing. If NYRA cannot or will not covert AQU facilities,amenities and racing to those at Sar or Bel or simiilar to those at ARL or KEE. I strongly encourage the Governor to destroy the facility and replace it with up-scale housing, including a Mall, and modern rail transportation connected to other NYC boroughs. Eliminate AQU and you may extend the lives of many racing degenerates who keep the Track alive during the Winter months!
Crist is dead accurate for most of the article. However, he continues to defend racing during the winter and Aqueduct LOSES money every meet. Mr Crist, would you be employed as editor in chief if the DRF was in the red every year?
Shut down Aqueduct entirely. It's ridicuous for one racing organization to have to run and maintain three different tracks. You don't need run of the mill races/meets to pay for the higher-end events. That's nonsense. You can substitute a world class simulcasting facilty at Aqueduct and generate the same "take" without the expenses of running/maintaining a track. Back in the heyday, there was no NY racing in the winter, and opening day in the Spring was a hugh event.
why should the little guy put more money into the game? it's the claimers that fill the races. the small stables can't compete with the large claiming barns that will drop horses drastically off claims just to win races. they can do this without any fear of losing the horse to a small stable because the small , honest barn will never figure out how to make the horse win. it;s definitely not good feed and grooming and daily exercise. the lack of foals is one reason. the proliferation of huge claiming stables is the other. without new owners, the industry is dead.