By T. D. Thornton
In a relatively small sample size of 22 races run with “enhanced” purse-to-claiming price ratios greater than 2 to 1 this year, the New York Racing Association (NYRA) has experienced an above-norm scratch rate of 11%.
But Scott Palmer, VMD, the equine medical director for the New York State Gaming Commission (NYSGC), told commissioners at Monday's monthly meeting that the higher scratch rate for those types of races is evidence that newly enhanced veterinary scrutiny policies designed to screen out at-risk horses have “successfully mitigated” the dangers associated with running horses for purses that are more than double the value of claiming prices.
Thus, based on Palmer's assessment that the situation is safe, there were no changes made to the system that commissioners unanimously voted in Jan. 28 to add flexibility to claiming races. At that time, the NYSGC agreed to relax a 2-to-1 purse/price rule for claiming races on a case-by-case basis so NYRA could card races that are competitive with other tracks in the mid-Atlantic region whose claiming structures are not governed by commission-mandated purse ratios.
A key part of the rule change was that in order to tweak purses upward beyond that 2-to-1 ratio, NYRA had to agree to perform an additional level of veterinary due diligence to double-check situations that trigger greater risk, like if a horse is being entered off an extended layoff, drops precipitously in class, shows a questionable workout pattern, or has been reported to have had multiple intra-articular medications administered in its recent history.
“As the purse levels exceed the claiming price of the horse, risk is incentivized and the horse becomes a commodity,” Palmer said. “That's the challenge, and that's where we had to find this fine line, this balance if you will, between increase of the economic opportunities without the horse having to pay the price for that. That's what we're trying to do here.”
Palmer gave some historical perspective on the situation: During the 2011-12 spring meet at Aqueduct Racetrack, 21 horses suffered catastrophic injuries. Subsequent to that spike in deaths, a governor's task force on equine safety made the recommendation that (among multiple other factors) the state needed to dis-incentivize owners and trainers from entering lame or uncompetitive horses in lower-level races that feature gaming-inflated purses, which in some cases at NYRA had a purse/price ratio as high as 4-to-1.
The NYSGC responded by setting the 2-to-1 purse/price ratio, and that mandate had been in effect for nearly seven years when NYRA requested some exceptions to it last December.
Competing racing jurisdictions around New York “were not experiencing an increased rate of fatality in this group of races in the region around us,” Palmer said when explaining his rationale for crafting the new protocols that went into effect in 2019. “It resonated with us that New York was at a disadvantage in this regard, both for the horsemen and for the racing association.
“However, as you all know, we were very reluctant to remove a protective measure that seemed to be working, and to take a risk that horses would be put at risk again. So that's why the new protective factors were required,” Palmer said.
And Palmer also noted an historical caveat: “There's some very good research that shows there's an increased amount of risk for catastrophic injury for horses in claiming races with a purse-to-price ratio greater than 1.8 to 1. This is a very sound piece of scientific information.”
With all of that in mind, NYRA was granted permission to modify some claiming purse/price ratios at this spring's race meets. So far this year, Aqueduct and Belmont Park have each carded 11 “enhanced” claiming races, with purse/price ratios ranging from 2.25 to 1 to 3 to 1.
Those races, Palmer said, drew 142 entrants. Of them, 16 scratched prior to racing (14 veterinary scratches, one stewards' scratch, and one trainer's scratch). Of the horses that raced, one failed to finish and was vanned off with a non-fatal injury. There were no equine deaths in those 22 “enhanced” claiming races.
“One of the things that's important about this is that it represents a bit of a higher [scratch rate] number than ordinary in most races,” Palmer said (he did not cite a comparative scratch rate for other races). “It's about an 11% scratch rate here. And that's a little high. So what that tells us is that NYRA was doing a really good job, and really had a hard eye on these horses. And they just took horses out if they had concerns.”
But commissioner Todd Snyder asked Palmer if, by allowing the higher ratios, “we're basically creating the incentive that we didn't want to create, and then we're creating a regulatory scheme to intervene to protect against it.”
Palmer responded that “I think you could argue that. I don't know that I could compare that to regular races [that don't have enhanced claiming prices] and make a distinct comparison to say this is different. But I think the point is well made that in [11 % of entrants] it was determined that they really shouldn't run. [The] regulatory scratches were interventions, which is exactly why we had this program in place.”
Palmer also pointed to New York's improving equine safety record over the past seven years since the Aqueduct catastrophes sparked change in 2012.
“This is [the] widespread effect of this racing quality-control program that we have in place,” Palmer said. “This is not a statistical fluke. We've reduced these injuries in the neighborhood of 42 to 50%, and it's been in that range for the last seven years. That's not an accident… This is hard work. This is something that we do every day. And it means that it works. It's no public relations campaign. These are the numbers. It works.
“So where do we go from here?” Palmer asked rhetorically. “I expect that NYRA will continue to make requests for their condition book to modify these races. Finger Lakes has so far not done that.
“The commission staff will continue to closely monitor all these races and make adjustments to protocols as necessary to minimize risk of injury,” Palmer summed up. “I think that's the way we're going to [handle the situation moving forward]. I think you should feel comfortable about the decision you made in January. And I think you should also be very comfortable about the fact that you insisted that there be some extra measures put in place here.”