ALBANY, N.Y. — A New York task force investigating a spike in thoroughbred deaths at the Aqueduct racetrack last winter called Friday for tighter rules and better regulation of drug use, particularly corticosteroids that can mask injuries.
Four industry experts who reviewed the deaths of 21 horses at Aqueduct over nearly four months, roughly double the rate at the track in previous years and the national average, said increased purses in claiming races also helped push substandard horses onto the track. That incentive was reduced by a subsequent state racing rule limiting the purse-to-claim ratio.
For a few months at Aqueduct, some horses worth about $7,500 were running for purses ranging from $29,000 to $40,000, they said.
"There are commercial pressures involved in racing just as there are commercial pressures involved in any business," said Scott Palmer, the equine veterinarian who chaired the task force. "I think it's just incumbent upon racing authorities, and regulators, and all of us, to modulate that pressure or deal with that pressure so it doesn't put the horse at risk."
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The task force report, released Friday, said 18 of the horses were euthanized after breaking a leg in races, mostly in low- to mid-level claiming races.
"Based upon the limited information available, many of the horses in this investigation were believed to have had pre-existing musculoskeletal conditions prior to the race in which they were fatally injured," the report said. "Although the exact nature of these injuries remains a source of speculation, the task force believes that the administration of systemic or intra-articular corticosteroids may have impaired veterinarians and trainers in accurately assessing horses' soundness leading up to a race."
The report noted the failure of trainers to report steroid injections and the failure of the racing board to enforce reporting rules. It called for a series of new restrictions on steroid use before races.
The task force cited the reluctance of jockeys and exercise riders to draw attention to horses they believed to be unsafe and the absence of necropsies, recommending forensic examinations of fatally injured animals.
The governor's office said the state will establish an anonymous safety hotline so jockeys can report concerns without fearing retribution.
The report came as Gov. Andrew Cuomo prepared to sign a law giving him temporary majority control of the New York Racing Association board. Cuomo, who requested the report, has criticized NYRA's management and wants significant changes. Those include an overhaul of veterinary practices, as the task force recommended, to have its veterinary department report to track stewards instead of NYRA's Racing Office.
"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," Cuomo said.
He has asked New York's Racing and Wagering Board to promptly adopt the recommended changes, he said.
NYRA has held the franchise to operate the Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga tracks since 1955. President Ellen McClain said Friday the association is committed to racing safety and integrity, that except for the recent Aqueduct meet it has one of the best safety records in racing, and looks forward to working with the state to create an even safer environment for horses and jockeys.