01/09/2015 5:38PM

In wake of breakdowns, NYRA officials consider trimming schedule

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - The deaths of 11 Thoroughbreds during the first 20 days of Aqueduct’s winter meet has New York Racing Association officials contemplating a change to the winter schedule.

Martin Panza, senior vice president of racing operations for the NYRA, said Friday that internal discussions will be held this weekend to determine if there’s anything more the company can do to help reduce the number of catastrophic injuries. Among the topics that will be discussed is a possible reduction to a four-day race week in January and February. Currently, Aqueduct races five days a week those months.

“That might be something we look at,” Panza said Friday afternoon. “Maybe we should back down to four racing days a week at some period here.”

The NYRA would need permission from the New York State Gaming Commission to trim the schedule. NYRA took a 10-day break in December and has a nine-day break scheduled for the end of March (23-31). There are only 13 racing days scheduled in March, when racing will be conducted four days a week.

New York trainers - including Rick Violette, Linda Rice and Richard Schosberg, respectively the president and board members of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association - will meet with NYRA management on Saturday morning to discuss the situation.

“There may not be one right answer, but we will use every avenue possible and examine every angle to address this situation,” Violette said in a statement. “Everything will be on the table, from finding an independent track surface expert to come in and examine the inner track to a thorough reexamination of every procedure and protocol in place before a horse leaves the starting gate.”

Apex became the 11th equine fatality since Dec. 3 when he suffered a broken ankle entering the far turn of Aqueduct’s second race on Friday. He was the ninth horse that had to be euthanized on track. One horse died as a result of breaking its neck in a spill - a horse that fell over him had to be euthanized - and another horse died of a cardiovascular collapse.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in the period of time I’ve been in racing,” said Panza, who was a racing executive in Southern California for 20 years before coming to NYRA in the fall of 2013.

A spokesman for the gaming commission wrote in an email: "The Commission is extremely concerned with the unacceptable number of incidents at Aqueduct. We are thoroughly investigating the circumstances of each fatality so that the Commission can best address the situation. The role of ensuring equine health and safety continues to evolve, and the Commission stands ready to take whatever actions are necessary to protect horses."

The last seven races of Friday’s Aqueduct card were canceled, though Panza said it had more to do with high winds that were blowing snow from the infield into the face of the jockeys on the inner track than the breakdowns. A second horse, Italian Rules, was injured in the second race, but not fatally. He suffered a soft-tissue injury that will, at the very least, lead to the retirement of the 10-year-old horse.

Panza said horsemen have not voiced concerns with Aqueduct’s inner track. Panza also said NYRA is doing everything it can to allow only sound horses to race.

“I think we have a pretty competent vet crew, and obviously they’re fully aware of what’s going on,” Panza said. “They have the full authority if they don’t like a horse to scratch a horse. In the morning, their checks - I feel pretty confident they’re being very thorough throughout.

“In talking to the trainers and to the riders it’s not the track. There are no complaints about the surface.”

Panza also said that in recent weeks racing secretary Dan Eidson has come up with a list of 15 to 20 horses that he will no longer permit to race here.

“We’ve tried to weed things out a little bit that way,” Panza said.

Panza said that NYRA had 24 catastrophic fatalities in 2014, two more than in 2013 and equaling the third lowest in the last 11 years.

“We do probably as much or more than any racetrack in the country,” Panza said. “I can’t think of things off the top of our head that we’re not doing. Jocks know, too; if it doesn’t feel right, scratch it. We don’t want you out there risking your life.”