'No Evidence' of Issues with Tracks, According to NYRA's O'Rourke

Saratoga Race Course | Sarah Andrew

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY. – In the wake of two fatal breakdowns during the Travers day program Saturday, New York Racing Association officials faced the questions of if they should immediately cancel the remaining races on the card at Saratoga Race Course and whether to run on Sunday. After fact-finding sessions both days, NYRA President and CEO David O'Rourke said the courses were deemed safe for competition–the jockeys were in agreement–and racing continued as scheduled.

The catastrophic leg injuries that led to two horses being euthanized Saturday brought the total of equine deaths to 12 since the start of the unusually rainy season July 13. According to the New York State Gaming Commission's Breakdown, Death, Injury and Incident Database, four of the fatalities were related to training injuries and eight to racing. Six of the eight deaths were from incidents in races run on the turf courses. Seven were musculoskeletal injuries and one was believed to be a heart attack.

The two dirt breakdowns were horrific, taking place in the stretch, with unbeaten, high-profile 3-year-old horses well on their way to victories in seven-furlong Grade I races: Maple Leaf Mel (Cross Traffic) in the GI Test S. on Aug. 5 and New York Thunder (Nyquist) in the GI H. Allen Jerkens Memorial on Saturday.

In the minutes after the New York Thunder injury, O'Rourke said NYRA had to consider whether to immediately close on the biggest day of the Saratoga season.

“Everything is going through your mind at that point,” he said.

After consulting with his staff and a number of other people, O'Rourke elected to run the remainder of the card, including the $1.25-million GI Travers S.

“I was speaking with the Gaming Commission at the same time, the stewards at the same time, about the situation that we're in,” he said. “Obviously, there's board members here. Many of them, if not most of them, are horsemen. The decision was made to continue the card because we have no evidence that there's anything going on with these racetracks.”

There were no further injuries.

After what he described as a sleepless night, O'Rourke said that he and Glen Kozak, NYRA executive vice president and track superintendent, started talking with trainers at 6:30 a.m. Sunday and later talked with jockeys and veterinarians. At 12:45 p.m., NYRA announced that the 11-race program would be held.

John Velazquez, co-chairman of the Jockeys Guild, said the riders met with O'Rourke and expressed confidence in the conditions.

“We didn't find any issues at all,” Velazquez said. “The tracks feel safe. We didn't come up with anything that we were concerned with.”

Velzaquez acknowledged that the injuries are unsettling and said that NYRA should continue its reviews.

“We've definitely had some really horrendous breakdowns,” he said. “We are very saddened about it. There are going to be more investigations and more things we have to do and hopefully we find more answers. It will be days or weeks, whatever it is, but right now the tracks feel safe and let's continue.”

Saturday, Nobel (Ire) (Lope de Vega {Ire}), an Irish-bred 4-year-old was injured in the gallop-out after the fifth race on turf. Two hours and 20 minutes later, New York Thunder broke bones in his left front leg in the Jerkens.

Immediately after Nobel's injury, O'Rourke said he, staff members and Dr. Scott Palmer, the Equine Medical Director for the Gaming Commission walked the turf course to look for problems. Since more than 11 inches of rain have fallen during the meet, prompting NYRA to move 59 races off the grass to the dirt, the rail has been placed far out in the middle of the course. On Saturday, the rails were down and the horses were running on very good turf. Still, Nobel was injured.

“We wanted to take a look at it,” O'Rourke said. “One easy solution was to pull everything off the turf. They were on fresh ground. I'm out there with experts and what I'm looking for is unanimous consensus. Not a majority. Everyone's consensus of opinion was that the turf course was in immaculate condition in the lanes we were in.”

When New York Thunder went down between the eighth pole and the sixteenth pole, O'Rourke said Kozak reviewed the surface.

“Glen installed this track and is quite familiar with moisture and the measurements and everything,” O'Rourke said. “It's nothing off about the track. I'm convinced, I'm confident in that moment of that, but I want more information. Sometimes you need more time. We made the decision to continue the card.”

Afterward, O'Rourke said the NYRA staff continued to look at the two turf courses and the dirt main track to help develop data that could be useful in Sunday's review

“This has been a tough meet, so this has been a topic,” he said. “It's not like all of a sudden we started taking a second look. After racing, the track guys are doing their thing. Some of them, I think, were here all night.”

Sunday's card was completed without incident, but O'Rourke said the investigation is far from complete. Noting that NYRA is a non-profit, he said continuing to race on Saturday and Sunday was not related to revenue, but to safety.

“This is about how do we get it right, when and how we're making decisions and why,” he said. “And my first job right now is to check off the tracks because that's the question I'm getting quite a bit. I came out of that, on that aspect, confident that every piece of information or resource that I think is applicable, that we have access to, is telling me the same thing.”

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