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Horse deaths prompt study at Aqueduct

Horse deaths are on the rise at Aqueduct Racetrack, and now the governor is launching an investigation to find out why.
TimesLedger Newspapers

An elevated number of horse deaths at Aqueduct has prompted an investigation into equine safety at the South Ozone Park racetrack.

The state Racing and Wagering Board said four industry experts will review the deaths of close to 20 horses — including seven in March — at Aqueduct over the past four months. This comes after Gov. Andrew Cuomo sent a letter to the New York Racing Association calling for an inquiry.

The four-person panel will examine the condition of Aqueduct’s inner track and policies on necropsies, horse examination, veterinary procedures, equine drug use, as well as the procedures for selling available horses to the public. The panel, dubbed the New York Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety, includes retired jockey Jerry Bailey, Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Associations Chairman Alan Foreman and equine veterinarians Scott Palmer and Mary Scollay.

“This team of renowned experts has the knowledge, experience and objectivity to shine a light on the causes behind these tragic breakdowns,” said John Sabini, chairman of the Racing and Wagering Board. “I’m confident that their findings will help improve the safety and well-being of equine athletes racing in New York.”

Wayne Johnson, a Brooklyn-based animal rights activist, said he plans to launch a Facebook page and a website to protest all future races at Aqueduct until a root cause for the deaths is identified.

Last year, Aqueduct averaged 5.5 injury incidents per 1,000 stats, but that number jumped to 6.4 in 2011, according to a report in The New York Times. The nationwide average is 5.2, according to the newspaper.

A representative for NYRA said horse racing officials welcome the inquiry as a safe racing environment is its “highest priority.” The next major race at Aqueduct is the 88th running of the Wood Memorial, scheduled for April 7.

“They [the panel] possess the knowledge and expertise needed to perform a comprehensive review of NYRA’s procedures and recommend changes to improve safety at all our racetracks,” said NYRA spokesman Dan Silver, adding that he had no reason to suspect the Wood Memorial would be delayed.

Aqueduct operates on the grounds of Resorts World Casino New York City, which opened its doors last October after a complete overhaul of the facility. While the gaming company remains separate from the racetrack activities, spokesman Stefan Friedman acknowledged that the company has a vested interest in the safety of the animals racing at Aqueduct.

“While we have no say in any decisions, rules or actions regarding racing, we fully share the concerns that New Yorkers have expressed over revelations of tragic outcomes at horse racing facilities both here and across the country,” he said.

Equine safety has recently become national news after HBO announced the cancellation of the horse racing-themed show “Luck” after a rash of horse deaths and poor ratings.

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