By T.D. Thornton
Twelve Thoroughbreds have lost their lives because of catastrophic injuries suffered during racing (11) or training (1) at Aqueduct since the inner dirt track opened Dec. 3.
The New York Racing Association, horsemen, regulators, and the public all want answers–fast. Trouble is, quick solutions to complex epidemiological problems are rarely possible.
Over the past several days, TDN spoke with two veterinarians whose efforts are likely to figure prominently in whether horses stay safe at NYRA racetracks: New York State Gaming Commission equine medical director Scott Palmer, and NYRA chief examining veterinarian Anthony Verderosa.
Both doctors acknowledged that part of the difficulty in dealing with the current crisis involves remaining committed to a plan of long-term betterment–even as many concerned parties are demanding instant action.
“This is a very emotional thing for me personally,” said Palmer. “I take it personally when a horse dies out on one of my racetracks. Believe you me, I get it. We've had some problems recently. But we are not throwing our hands in the air. We're buckled down, we're saying, 'Okay, what happened? Why did it happen?' When things go off the rails, you fall back on fundamentals. You do a careful, thorough review. You don't jump to conclusions. You don't make statements or assumptions before you have evidence-based information to guide you in the right direction.”
Palmer chaired New York's Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety, which in 2012 put forth recommendations to reduce the prevalence of musculoskeletal fractures related to training and racing. A number of the protocols he initiated are today carried out by Verderosa, who has been with NYRA for 18 years, first as an associate, and since 2005, as the head of the crew of three additional vets responsible for pre-race checks and on-track emergencies.
“There are always going to be catastrophic racing injuries,” Verderosa said. “Horses at speed, unfortunately, suffer catastrophic injuries. We're mostly talking about fractures here, and we're talking about the same sorts of fractures. These are overuse, stress-type fractures. The problem is that they're silent. So a trainer, unless he radiographs his horses on a weekly basis–and nobody does that–even then, he might not even be able to find these things.
“So what happens is the horses go out there and work over speed, and then finally something gives away, either the bottom of the cannon bone, or both sesamoids, which is the most common catastrophic fracture we see. In a perfect world, if you were to eliminate fractures, you'd barely have any catastrophic injuries.”
According to the NYRA website, in 2012, the year the task force was called into action, the circuit's rate of racing fatalities was 2.2 per 1,000 starts. Verderosa said that was only year since 1990 (when detailed records were first kept) that the rate has been above 2.0.
In 2013, NYRA's rate fell to 1.3, according to the website. Verderosa said for 2014, the rate was 1.4.
“That's why this cluster of injuries that occurred at Aqueduct is extremely alarming for all of us,” Palmer said. “We have certain protocols in place that have been working for the past several years, and they've been working pretty well. In the last six weeks something different has happened. Whatever is going on here is happening in spite of the things we're doing that have been very effective for the past two years.”
Verderosa was emphatic that there have been no breaches of protocol and no personnel changes among his vets. “We scratch horses all the time that are lame. It's not like we pass them with a rubber stamp,” he said.
Verderosa said that as per task force guidelines, every horse that suffers any type of sudden death or is euthanized on NYRA property is necropsied and has blood samples sent to the state.
“We've been sending horses for necropsies since the end of 2012,” Verderosa said. “They've got all the blood samples on all these horses. And they have found nothing. They haven't found any smoking gun from the veterinary side.”
So what has caused the uptick in equine fatalities since December?
Verderosa said it could be a combination of factors: The seasonally diminished quality of the horse population. The fact that there is no grass racing at this time of year (because turf is generally less physically taxing). The lure of gaming-infused purses that can “incentivize trainers to make bad decisions” about how they train and care for their animals.
“This time of year, if you want to call them 'cheaper' horses, yes,” said Verderosa. “If you want to put it in that parlance, the quality of horse is not the same, obviously. I don't want to say they're less quality of a horse, but they're not the horses that we see at Belmont and Saratoga. Plus, we're constantly at this time of year on one dirt track, and most of the races are claiming races.”
The recent spate of deaths could also just be explained by a bad run of numbers. That makes mathematic sense. But both Verderosa and Palmer agreed the theory tends not to go over too well when the public and regulators are demanding answers.
“Statistically there's always going to be clusters,” Verderosa said. “Please understand that the long-term perspective is exactly the right way to look at this,” said Palmer. “The numbers are still below the national average.”
According to the Jockey Club's Equine Injury Database, the most recently available national fatality rate was 1.90 deaths per 1,000 starts in 2013. Palmer said he has already launched an investigation that includes, but is not limited to, track surfaces, the deceased horses, and their trainers and vets.
“It may be that we're going to implement protocol changes, some medication changes, some rule changes,” Palmer said. “All of these things are on the table. They're all up for discussion right now.”
Verderosa said one of the most troubling aspects is that some of NYRA's catastrophic injuries have occurred to horses that haven't been on his vet's list or have never been scratched for being lame.
“So it's very hard for us when we have our hands on them and we're jogging them and we're looking at them to correlate anything we're seeing with the [latent] catastrophic injury,” Verderosa said.
Palmer is also an adjunct professor at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine, where for the past year he has been working on an epidemiological study to try and pinpoint at-risk horses before they get injured or show any signs of lameness.
But again, the problem is time.
“You need a lot of data to maker statistically significant conclusions,” Palmer said. “So we are working with this and we're learning a lot, but we're not quite ready to make an announcement about that yet.”
Verderosa said that he would like to see the state require trainers to attend continuing education classes to retain their licenses. As a vet, he said he is required to log 15 hours of classes annually. For trainers he'd recommend four hours.
Palmer said he recognizes that in light of the current crisis over the Aqueduct fatalities, it is difficult to get people to share his vision of attacking the problem by bolstering long-term efforts.
“We do have a plan,” Palmer said. “It's not perfect, but it's getting better and better and better because we evaluate it all the time. We are working hard at this. There will be setbacks along the way. Nothing happens quickly. That's my frustration. I wish we could have had this figured out [already] so that no horses would have died [at Aqueduct].”
Despite his blunt nature and 18 years of sometimes grisly on-track experience, Verderosa said he can empathize with people's desire for racing fatalities to come to an immediate stop–even though he knows that's not statistically possible.
“We wouldn't be veterinarians if we just said, 'Oh, this is the cost of doing business.'” Verderosa said. “I understand it. I'm in the changing zeitgeist. The world does not want to hear about horses being sent out to do this human endeavor, which horse racing really is, and having to suffer a catastrophic injury. That's why we do everything that is practically possible to mitigate these sorts of injuries.”