By Dan Ross
Once again, issues of horse and rider safety at Turf Paradise were a bone of contention during the latest Arizona Racing Commission meeting Thursday, due to a shortage of attending veterinarians at the track and concerns over the overall state of the facility.
The upcoming Turf Paradise meet is scheduled to start on Nov. 5 and run through May 7 next year. There are roughly between 664 and 700 horses currently stabled and training there, with around 1,500 eventually anticipated.
But according to Sue Gale, the Arizona Department of Gaming's chief veterinarian, those horses are attended by a shortage of active veterinarians.
“The main concern that we have, found out that several veterinarians that practice on the backside were not returning to Turf this year,” said Gale, about the venue switch from the recently concluded Arizona Downs meet to the upcoming Turf Paradise meet.
Gale stressed that this shortage applies to attending veterinarians only, not official veterinarians, and she doesn't envisage the scarcity would necessitate a halt to racing.
Nevertheless, Gale added, “it would be a good idea to put some information out to the various practicing vets in the area because certainly there is an opportunity to pick up some work.”
Several stakeholders raised during the meeting concerns over the general condition of the track surface and facility itself–an ongoing problem highlighted by a 2020-21 Turf Paradise race-meet marred by a high number of equine fatalities.
During the whole of 2020 and as of Aug. 19, 2021, 67 Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses have suffered equine fatalities at Turf Paradise–18 during morning training, 31 during racing, and 18 due to other circumstances–according to a TDN public records act request.
During Thursday's meeting, Gale provided a state-wide update on equine fatality numbers.
According to Gale, there have been 15 race-day fatalities in Arizona so far this year: Two at Arizona Downs (which ran June 1 through Sept. 15) and 13 at Turf Paradise.
This works out, Gale added, to a rate of 1.94 fatalities per 1,000 starts–currently lower than the 2020 statewide rate in Arizona of 3.11.
The 2020 national average was 1.41 per 1,000 starts.
In discussing some of the factors underpinning these numbers, Gale zeroed in on two key variables. The first concerned a lack of comprehensive historical record keeping in evaluating horse soundness.
“We have been doing pre-race exams,” Gale said. “However, we have not been maintaining the records and not making full use of the history of the horses in order to direct greater scrutiny to those horses that might be at higher risk.”
The second concerned a lack of thorough and consistent track surface maintenance standards.
“This requires looking at the composition of the surface, the consistency of that, the depth of the cushion of the surface, the moisture content and what maintenance is done,” said Gale.
During the public comment period, several industry stakeholders took aim at the track conditions and safety protocols at Turf Paradise.
These criticisms included a shortage of outriders and compromised rail support beams that could prove potentially dangerous in the event of a horse collision.
“This surface is not right,” warned trainer Kevin Eikleberry. “We have some purse money–we should have a very good meet. But if we have a racetrack like we have right now, we will not. We will have more breakdowns than we can handle.”
Turf Paradise general manager, Vincent Francia, didn't directly address these criticisms.
Earlier in the meeting, however, Francia explained that much of the work has been completed to prepare the facility for the start of the meet. This includes an apparent fix to a problem with the facility's water trucks, said Francia.
“Should something give us a challenge with one of our water trucks, we have plans to make sure water is put on the track,” said Francia.
When pressed by one of the commissioners, Rudy Casillas, the gaming department's deputy director, explained that the department routinely visits Turf Paradise to conduct inspections, and provides the operators with “updated information” about their findings.
“We've given Turf [Paradise] up until the 20th to get certain things completed and repaired,” Casillas added. “We will continue to monitor as we go forward.”
During the meeting, Leroy Gessmann, the Arizona Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association's executive director, broached the impending implementation of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA), and its potential effects on the state industry.
His presentation hit many of the key topics of conversation around the federal bill, including the currently unanswered question of cost, and the status of the various lawsuits against HISA.
“USADA will take over the testing,” Gessman said, of the United States Anti-Doping Agency. “If there is a bad test, they are going to take over the hearings, so, the hearings won't be done any longer by your stewards for Thoroughbreds.”
(TDN recently reported that there'll likely be a tiered approach in the beginning, with the severity of the infraction governing which set of regulatory personnel–either the state stewards or USADA's–will handle such a hearing)
“HISA has put together a committee, I believe it's two or three people, that have started going around to different jurisdictions to meet with the commissions and are giving them a preview of all this information,” said Gessman.
“I would say someone will be contacting the department shortly and you guys will be getting a visit on how things are going to go,” he added.