In a letter dated March 14, 2012, from the office of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to NYRA President Charles Haywood, NYRA was advised to "hire a qualified independent investigator or team of investigators to review the circumstances involving these breakdowns, analyze the cause or causes and recommend any necessary action to [prevent] equine breakdowns at NYRA facilities."
A four-member Task Force of respected industry experts was appointed on March 22, 2012, at the NYSRWB's direction. The Task Force members were:
To try to rectify the governor's concerns, the Task Force's mandate included the following (see "What the Task Force investigated" for a more detailed list):
Fatality causes outlined
According to the Report, of the 21 deaths, 18 fatalities were horses euthanized as a result of fractures sustained during racing—11 were associated with fracture of the right forelimb and seven with fracture of the left forelimb. One horse was euthanized a week after the race because of a severe soft tissue injury of the right hindlimb.
The remaining two fatalities were unrelated to musculoskeletal failure and were determined to be anomalies; thus, they were excluded from the relevant population of fatally injured horses when the Task Force considered potential interventions.
Separate from the analysis of the individual fatalities, the Task Force examined numerous other possible factors that might have contributed. These included racing surfaces, weather, the condition book, pre-race examination of horses, claiming races, shoeing practices, drugs and medication and extracorporeal shockwave therapy.
The Report stated, "The Task Force believes that there were missed opportunities for intervention to prevent these injuries. However, the Task Force does not intend for this Report to be used to find fault, assign blame or otherwise result in disciplinary action for events that occurred. This Report is intended to be a constructive analysis, identifying actions with the potential to prevent or mitigate injury to horses and riders, and our overall conclusions regarding the fatally injured horses as a group sets the stage for our recommendations."1
The Task Force formulated several conclusions, many of which are listed here from the Report1 (verbatim text is displayed in italics):
The Report also stated that, in addition to the analysis of the individual fatalities and other possible factors that may have contributed to those fatalities, other matters pursuant to the Task Force's mandate or that warranted comment or recommendations as a result of its review included medical records, postmortem protocols and procedures, the equine injury database and risk factors, an equine medical director and NYRA governance.
The Report noted, "The Task Force believes that the safety of the horse and rider are core priorities for NYRA and should be prominently included in the NYRA mission statement."1 This, they felt, will help to shape the culture of NYRA to include a focus on the safety and welfare of horses and riders.
The Task Force made several recommendations in its final report:1
Task Force members speak out
"It is troubling that a lay person had the ability to direct veterinary activity," said Task Force member Mary Scollay during a news conference held upon release of the Report. "That oversight needs to be moved from the racing office, and the stewards should be the only ones allowed to process vet scratches."
Task Force member Alan Foreman noted, "It was very clear that during the Aqueduct meet the incidents of breakdowns were a serious problem, to the extent that there was concern Governor Cuomo might shut down Aqueduct and all of NYRA racing unless the cause or causes were investigated and steps were taken to ensure the safety of the horses and riders."
The Task Force, Foreman said, was given a dual mandate. The first was to investigate the causes of the 21 fatalities. The second mandate was much broader in a number of areas, including drug testing, medication issues, postmortem protocols, veterinary issues and track surface. In short, it was to see how the welfare and safety of the horses could be improved.
"We determined at the outset that we would leave no stone unturned," Foreman said. "We covered the landscape of possible factors that might have led to this spike in fatal breakdowns. We were not looking to point fingers or assign blame, but trying to find out what may have caused these fatalities so future breakdowns could be prevented and the racing environment made safer for horses and riders. We hoped we could create change within the industry to make it safer for any racehorse stepping on the track prior to a race."
Scollay said the Task Force worked as a group and reached consensus on every issue. "It was a team project; the Report speaks for itself," she said. "We were thorough, worked hard to be objective and fair, so there could be improvements."
The Task Force spent countless hours analyzing the circumstances of each equine death at Aqueduct, said Task Force Chairman Scott Palmer. "We found multiple factors that created a perfect storm of conditions that caused these tragic injuries. We produced realistic recommendations that will make a lasting difference in racehorse health and safety.
"The circumstances of this investigation represented a unique opportunity for making changes to racing policy," Palmer continued. "The AAEP made a number of recommendations during the past five years, though there has been very little movement for adopting those; [it's been] slow going in terms of implementation. That's because it's very difficult to make those changes in multiple racing jurisdictions.
"The situation in New York is unique at this time, as Governor Cuomo has taken control of the NYRA Board, and he is changing the NYSRWB, as well," noted Palmer. "This unusual situation created a unique opportunity to make changes that could not otherwise be accomplished."
Two weeks after the Report was made public, the NYSRWB enacted emergency claiming and medication rules. "This prompt regulatory response is unusual, and the NYSRWB should be commended for their decisive action," said Palmer. "Though the political climate in New York was complicated by many unknowns during the past few months in terms of NYRA's organization, I believe Governor Cuomo's leadership and actions clearly indicate he is dedicated to ensuring that racing not only survives, but thrives in New York. Racing is a $4.2 billion industry in New York, and the Governor is very serious in making it successful. I am convinced Governor Cuomo wants to create a really strong, healthy and safe racing industry in New York."
"Many of the issues the Task Force identified are vulnerabilities throughout the industry as well," said Scollay. "To a certain extent, there are problems that need to be considered by the entire industry; it's not just Aqueduct (NYRA) alone."
Ed Kane, PhD, is a researcher and consultant in animal nutrition. He is an author and editor on nutrition, physiology and veterinary medicine with a background in horses, pets and livestock. Kane is based in Seattle.
1. New York Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety. Investigation of Equine Fatalities at Aqueduct 2011-2012 Fall/Winter Meet. Available at: www.governor.ny.gov/assets/documents/Report.pdf .