Palmer: ‘This is the risk-management program in action’

By: Tom LaMarra

Posted: June 10, 2019

The New York State Gaming Commission June 10 was provided with statistics that indicate numerous reforms enacted after a series of catastrophic breakdowns at Aqueduct Racetrack during the winter meet of 2011-12 have led to a 50% reduction in racing fatalities at New York’s four racetracks in the subsequent seven years.

NYSGC Equine Medical Director Dr. Scott Palmer provided the information as part of a requested follow-up to the commission’s decision to allow a change in a regulation that capped purses for claiming races at New York Racing Association tracks to twice the claiming price. After the advent of video lottery terminal gambling at Resorts World Casino at Aqueduct, some purses were four times the claiming price.

The cap was enacted as part of about 40 recommendations by the task force that examined the Aqueduct fatalities, but last year NYRA, with approval from the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, requested the cap be lifted for specified claiming races at the most recent Aqueduct winter meet and Belmont Park spring meet.

The NYSGC allowed the change given a drop in fatalities in recent years but with a requirement that the races in question be subject to further scrutiny, and that the results be tracked and reported upon.

Palmer said there were 11 such races during the Aqueduct meet and 11 at the current Belmont Park spring meet. The purse-to-claiming-price ratio at Aqueduct ranged from 2.25-to-1 to 3-to-1, while at Belmont it was about 2.15-to-1.

Of the 142 horses entered in the 22 races, 16 were scratched—14 by a private or regulatory veterinarian, one by the stewards and one by a trainer. One horse in the 22 races was vanned off the track but it wasn’t a catastrophic injury, Palmer said.

“(The number of scratches) is a bit of a higher number than is ordinary, but it tells me NYRA (regulatory veterinarians) really had a hard eye on these horses,” Palmer said. “For roughly 10% of these horses, it was determined they shouldn’t run. This process was working for us.”

Palmer said horses in the races in question were subject to a second examination on top of the customary extensive exams from pre-race to the time the horses are loaded into the starting gate.

From 2012 to 2018, Palmer said Equine Injury Database stats show the catastrophic injury rate in races at the three NYRA tracks—Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga Race Course—and Finger Lakes Gaming & Racetrack has dropped 50%. Simultaneously, the rate in the Mid-Atlantic region has dropped substantially as well on average.

Palmer also said the catastrophic injury rate for races at Aqueduct for the 2018 winter meet was 1.5 per 1,000 starts—below the national average—but this year it fell to 0.86 per 1,000 starts.

“Overall, a lot of progress is being made,” Palmer said. “This is the risk-management program in action. This quality control is not a statistical fluke. What does this really mean? It’s hard work—something we do every day—and it works. This is not a public relations campaign. And it’s very important in light of some of the things going on in California now.”

Palmer also noted that the three-day Belmont Stakes Racing Festival, which offered 33 races, had a “perfect safety record. It was a beautiful job by a whole lot of people. We put a stake in the ground for safety, integrity and professionalism.”

In March of this year, a broad cross-section of stakeholders in seven states signed off on the Mid-Atlantic Strategic Plan to Reduce Racehorse Fatalities. The effort is designed to continue improving protocol and regulation in an effort to reduce catastrophic injuries.

In another racing matter, NYSGC Executive Director Rick Williams said he would have an update at the next meeting on a request by the commission to survey stakeholders on a plan announced by about 20 racetracks to phase out use of race-day Lasix in 2-year-olds and stakes. The NYSGC recently sent out about 150 letters and thus far received 17 responses, which Williams said were “on both sides of the issue.”

The coalition of racetracks that announced the plan before the Kentucky Derby has made no subsequent announcements. It stemmed from a cluster of catastrophic injuries during training and racing at Santa Anita Park, though Lasix has not been linked to breakdowns.

The NYSGC at the meeting also approved regulations that pave the way for sports betting at the four casinos that were built after a gambling expansion referendum: Del Lago Resort and Casino, Rivers Casino Schenectady, Resorts World Catskills and Tioga Downs Casino Resort. The latter is the only one with horse racing, but the other three are in proximity to racetracks, two of which offer video gaming; Resorts World owns Monticello Raceway and in April shuttered its gaming operation.

Legislation that would authorize sports betting at racetracks, perhaps via “skins” held by the four casinos, is under consideration by New York lawmakers.

New York Task Force Report on Racehorse Health and Safety

Mid-Atlantic Strategic Plan to Reduce Racehorse Fatalities

(Aqueduct Racetrack photo courtesy of NYRA)