By T. D. Thornton
A months-long investigation by the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) Authority on a cluster of 13 Thoroughbred fatalities at Laurel Park during this year's winter and spring meets has determined that the deaths could not be attributed to any specific, obvious cause.
The Nov. 28 report essentially reached the same no-obvious-fault finding that HISA announced back on Sept. 12 after it completed a separate-and similarly exhaustive-report on the 12 equine fatalities that occurred at Churchill Downs in April and May of 2023.
“Based on the evidence and information available to HISA, the cluster of fatalities cannot be attributed to a singular cause,” stated the conclusion of the Authority's 237-page Laurel report.
“However, HISA's review does establish that both the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (MTHA) and Maryland Horse Breeders Association expressed concerns about the consistency of the [main] track surface during March and April which led to the track inspection visits of [Dennis] Moore and [John] Passero,” the HISA report continued.
“Following those visits, in late April, Laurel Park implemented changes in track maintenance practices that were designed to increase the consistency of the track surface pad and cushion. It is notable that following the track maintenance procedures that were implemented after Mr. Moore's and Mr. Passero's visits, there were no further fatalities during the spring meet.
“Therefore, it would be reasonable to assume that those changes contributed to a safer surface going forward,” the HISA report stated.
The causes of the fatalities were summarized as six fractures sustained in training on the dirt track; four fractures sustained in racing on the dirt track; one case of exercise-associated sudden death; one case of hindlimb cellulitis, and one traumatic injury in the barn area.
Two of the incidents also caused human injuries, to a jockey and a trainer.
The report spanned racing at Laurel between Jan. 1 and May 7, 2023.
In March, three horses sustained fatal musculoskeletal injuries while training or racing on Laurel's dirt surface. After two additional horses sustained fatal musculoskeletal injuries while training on the morning of Apr. 8, Laurel (which is owned by 1/ST Racing), cancelled that afternoon's racing to allow for a full evaluation of the racing surface.
Racing resumed on Apr. 13, and, between then and April 20, three additional horses sustained fatal musculoskeletal injuries while training or racing on the track.
At that time, TDN reported that after the Apr. 20 deaths, 1/ST Racing initially announced that racing would be canceled indefinitely, then later tried to fill an Apr. 27 card that was abandoned when horsemen withheld entries. Management maintained that the track was safe, while the horsemen disagreed, at one point calling the situation a “catastrophic emergency.”
The MTHA then lobbied for Passero's consultancy and inclusion in trying to optimize maintenance of the main track, which has been problematic for years.
Passero used to be the superintendent for Maryland tracks several decades ago, and the horsemen had advocated for his inclusion as a consultant during the winter of 2021-22, which was when the last significant spate of equine deaths occurred over the Laurel dirt.
Passero recommended some tweaks to the track and the way the surface was conditioned, and racing resumed Apr. 29.
The meet ended May 7 without further fatalities, but the HISA report couldn't pinpoint for sure if the maintenance fixes that were implemented caused the reduction in deaths. Nor could it state for certain if problems with the track caused the deaths in the first place.
Based on necropsies, the report stated that veterinarians were “unable to identify a singular cause for the fatalities.”
Rulebreakers also didn't appear to factor into the deaths, according to the report, which stated, “HISA's review did not reveal any violations of HISA's rules by any Covered Persons that contributed directly to the injuries.”
But a footnote in the report also pointed out that HISA's Anti-Doping and Medication Control drug-testing program did not take effect until May 22, more than two weeks after the conclusion of the Laurel meet.
HISA's analysis of high-speed exercise analysis yielded data that “revealed that injured horses had: (i) more races per year in their career and (ii) more days between their last high-speed event and date of death.”
The report added that “this is consistent with [findings from] high-speed analysis performed in connection with the Churchill Downs Report [and are] consistent with our knowledge of repetitive, overuse (fatigue) injuries in racehorses.”
Although the idea of switching Maryland racing from Laurel to Pimlico Race Course was suggested during the spring fatality crisis, it never happened (1/ST Racing owns both tracks).
Yet it was a different story about a month later in Kentucky after the dozen deaths occurred at Churchill, and that track's corporate parent switched racing to another in-state track in its gaming portfolio, Ellis Park, while keeping Churchill open for stabling and training.
Pimlico hosted an extended meet through the spring and summer of 2021 the last time Laurel's track needed extensive repairs.
After years of freeze/thaw and drainage troubles, Laurel's main track was in such bad shape in April 2021 that Laurel ceased racing on it to begin an emergency rebuild from the base up. The project was repeatedly delayed and had its scope expanded, and it ended up taking five months before racing could resume instead of the initially projected one month.
When racing resumed in September 2021, the main track had no apparent safety issues. But the onset of cold weather revealed problems with seams in the base of the homestretch, then the cushion atop that layer needed substantial reworking to give it more body and depth.
Eight horses died from fractures while racing or training over Laurel's main track between Oct. 3 and Nov. 28, 2021, leading to weeks-long halts in racing through early the winter of 2022.
HISA mentioned in the Laurel report that a separate study on 17 fatalities that occurred at Saratoga Race Course this summer would be released “as soon as it is complete.”
In conjunction with the issuance of the Churchill fatality report back in September, the Authority had also announced the formation of a Track Surface Advisory Group that is available to respond immediately when racetracks are facing an ongoing crisis.
“The findings and observations noted in this [Laurel report] underscore the necessity of implementing the critical initiatives previously identified” in HISA's “strategic response” to the Churchill deaths.