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State wants overhaul in vet practices at Aqueduct

Gov. Andrew Cuomo's task force looks to make changes to ensure the safety of horses and jockeys at Aqueduct Racetrack. Photo by Christina Santucci
TimesLedger Newspapers

A task force investigating a spike in horse deaths at Aqueduct Racetrack in South Ozone Park last winter is calling for widespread rule changes in veterinary structure and the prohibition of certain drugs.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo had called on the task force last March in an effort to learn why Aqueduct equine deaths were close to double the national average from November 2011 to March 2012, and the governor announced his office received the findings and recommendations of the New York Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety Friday.

“New York is committed to placing the health, safety and welfare of the equine athlete as the top priority of horse racing,” Cuomo said. “As we bring accountability and responsible business practices to horse racing, these recommendations will be an integral part of a new and improved racing product.”

The governor directed the task force to review the circumstances involving the deaths, analyze the causes and recommend any necessary action to prevent equine breakdowns at New York Racing Association-operated facilities.

Howard Glazer, director of state operations for New York, reported the findings and said while the investigation did not yield a single root cause for the fatalities, a combination of factors likely led to an increased rate of equine deaths.

These factors include the use of drugs that may have masked pre-existing medical conditions, leaving the horses vulnerable to catastrophic injuries; a lack of protocol and inconsistencies in pre-race inspections and veterinary procedures; increased purses due to the success of Resorts World Casino, incentivizing stakeholders to place horses in races that were above their skill level; and an unusually mild weather on a track designed for harsher winters.

“The task force has spent countless hours analyzing the circumstances of each equine death at Aqueduct,” said task force chairman and veterinarian Dr. Scott Palmer. “We found multiple factors that created a ‘perfect storm’ of conditions that caused these tragic breakdowns.”

Palmer said the task force recommends a complete overhaul of NYRA’s veterinary practices, the creation of an equine medical director position within the state’s racing association and strict prohibitions regarding medications.

“I want to make it clear that we did not find any evidence of criminal wrongdoing,” said Palmer. “We do not believe there was an overt effort to race unsound horses, but rather an economic pressure to fill the racing field.”

The veterinary doctor went on to say the investigation found jockeys felt unable to voice concerns about the health of horses, fearing another rider would simply replace them. Palmer said the task force recommends an anonymous horse safety hotline to enable jockeys to report concerns without fear of retribution.

State Sen. Joe Addabbo (D-Howard Beach) stands behind the governor’s effort to overhaul NYRA, and he looks at this as a way of saving horse racing in Queens.

“I wasn’t happy to find out there were negative effects on the horses,” said Addabbo. “But this is a pathway to correcting the situation.”

After meeting with the horse racing association in May, the governor announced an agreement to establish the NYRA Reorganization Board. The board places NYRA under temporary public control in order to reform the association and transform oversight and management.

Reach reporter Steve Mosco by e-mail at smosco@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4546.

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