new york racetracks
Live thoroughbred racing returned to Belmont Park on April 26 for its 48-day spring/summer meet. So, the New York Racing Association (NYRA) is highlighting its broad-based safety program currently in effect at all NYRA tracks—Aqueduct Racetrack, in Ozone Park; Belmont Park, in Elmont; and Saratoga Race Course, in Saratoga Springs.

In addition to accreditation of each NYRA track by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Safety and Integrity Alliance (NTRA), a variety of initiatives have been put in place since 2013 at all three NYRA racetracks in areas such as racing surfaces and race-day scrutiny, as well as capital improvements and collaborative efforts with industry partners designed to ensure the safety of all participants.

These reforms and NYRA’s commitment to improving safety have led to demonstrably safer races: NYRA’s equine fatality rate has remained below the industry average in each of the previous six years.

In 2018, NYRA’s fatality rate was 1.20 per 1,000 starts as reported by The Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database. In addition, at the recently concluded 2019 Aqueduct winter/spring meet (January 1-April 20), the fatality rate was 0.86 per 1,000 starts. The 2018 national average as reported by The Jockey Club is 1.68 per 1,000 starts.

Racing Surfaces

Before, during, and after each race meet, NYRA conducts extensive racing and training surface testing with a system that utilizes both daily measurements and enhanced data collection to help create and maintain safe and consistent track surfaces.

Before any meet, the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory team performs comprehensive sampling and analysis, including:

  • Laboratory testing the track material;
  • Inspecting the base and cushion using ground-penetrating radar; and
  • Evaluating the surface’s overall performance and consistency using the Orono Biomechanical Surface Tester, which replicates loads and speed of a Thoroughbred’s leading forelimb at the gallop.

Additionally, before and after each day of racing, NYRA staff collect data about and test the cushion depth, moisture content, and surface consistency to ensure the readings are within predetermined ranges.

Further, NYRA said it consults and actively shares internal data and daily measurements with independent testing and engineering firms to provide additional levels of scrutiny and relevant expertise. All track maintenance work is meticulously documented, logged, and subsequently shared in real time both internally and with outside consultants.

All track maintenance decisions and actions are informed by scientific data matched with current and forecast weather conditions.

To meet NYRA’s goal of establishing science-driven best practices to establish and maintain safe surfaces and facilities for its equine and human athletes, the association has made significant capital investments in recent years to upgrade and modernize racing and training facilities.

Since 2013, NYRA has upgraded turf courses at Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga with modernized irrigation and drainage systems to improve the overall surface by increasing turf growth, recovery, and consistency. Turf courses at Belmont and Saratoga were widened to create additional running lanes and reduce wear. During the same period, NYRA has renovated and widened the Belmont training track and the Oklahoma training track’s turf course at Saratoga to add running lanes, decrease congestion, and improve overall safety.

Additionally, all three tracks and both training tracks feature innovative alarm systems designed to quickly alert personnel of a loose horse.

In 2017, NYRA completely renovated Aqueduct’s main track, replaced the inner dirt track with a second turf course, and added the latest in safety rail technology. And, Aqueduct’s 2018 fall meet featured a new surface on the inner turf course, meaning all the track’s racing surfaces have been replaced or completely renovated since 2017.

Race-Day Scrutiny

Four NYRA veterinarians perform race-day inspections, and Anthony Verderosa, DVM, NYRA’s Veterinary Department Director, oversees the inspections to regulate the safety and welfare of all Thoroughbred racehorses at each NYRA track:

  • Pre-race horse inspection: A NYRA regulatory veterinarian personally inspects each horse entered to race on the morning of the race date to ensure the equine athlete—in their professional opinion—is fit to compete. This inspection shall include: a review of previous pre-race inspection findings for the horse; physical inspection of the horse in the stall to include palpation of both front limbs and any apparently abnormal structures observed in the hind limbs; observation of the horse outside the stall while being walked and jogged in hand away from and toward the examining veterinarian; and discussion with the trainer or their designee regarding changes in physical findings or layoffs.
  • Pre-race horse observation: regulatory veterinarians continuously observe the horses at each stage of the pre-race process, beginning with the walk over from the barn area and including each stage of the saddling process, post parade, and warm-up, and transitions only when all horses are in the starting gate ready to race. Regulatory veterinarians have the authority to recommend a scratch to the stewards at any time prior to the running of the race.
  • Observation of horses during and after the race: NYRA regulatory veterinarians observe all horses during and after the race, including the unsaddling process and walk back to the barn area.

Regulatory veterinarians catalog and record all information and data generated by the pre-race examination and race day observation to add medical details to past performances and workout information.

Enhanced Scrutiny

In 2013, NYRA implemented enhanced protocols to ensure the safety of horses placed on the steward’s and/or veterinarian’s list, as well as those that have not started a race within a set timeframe.

  • Steward’s list: The stewards can place the name of any horse on the steward’s list for any reason they deem proper. While on this list, the horse may not race or be entered to race. The most common reason for placement on the steward’s list is poor performance, which is defined as a horse having been beaten by at least 25 lengths in his or her last race.
  • Veterinarian’s list: The veterinarian’s list is designed as a safeguard to prevent unsound or unhealthy horses from being entered before recovering from a physical condition or illness. Usually these horses are identified during pre-race inspections as being unsound or having been observed either on-track or in the post-race test barn as unsound or experiencing epistaxis (bleeding from one or both nostrils). To be removed from the veterinarian’s list, the horse must pass a pre-workout soundness inspection, record a 4-furlong workout in 52 seconds or less before a NYRA regulatory veterinarian, and pass a post-workout inspection and blood test for the presence of medication above allowable thresholds.

Workout Scrutiny

  • First-time starter: A first-time starter must have at least three works in the previous 45 days, one of which must have been at least 1/2 mile, and been gate-approved by the starter.
  • Not started within 90 days: The horse must have at least three works within 90 days of the proposed start date, two of which must have been within the last 60 days and one of which must have been at least 1/2 mile, and one work at least 3/8 mile or further within 30 days of the proposed start.
  • Not started within 60 days: The horse must have at least two workouts within 60 days of the proposed start date, one of which must have been at least 1/2 mile, and one work at least 3/8 mile or further within 30 days of the proposed start.
  • Not started within 30 days: A horse must have one workout of at least 3/8 mile or further within 30 days of the proposed start.

Collaborative Efforts With Industry Partners

The New York Racing Association shares its commitment and focus on safety with the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (NYTHA) and the New York State Gaming Commission (NYSGC), with the input of industry partners, including the NTRA.

The collective efforts of NYRA, NYTHA, and the NYSGC set a standard when it comes to the evolution and science of preventing and investigating the root causes of equine injuries. Since 2013 NYRA has implemented or enhanced the following policies and procedures in conjunction with NYTHA and the NYSGC to further increase the safety of its racing operations:

  • Forming the Equine Safety Review Board, a group comprised of NYRA veterinarians, track management, and the New York state equine medical director, which investigates any race day equine catastrophic injury;
  • Creating the NYRA Board of Directors Equine Safety Committee, tasked with focusing on continuous analysis and further advancement of NYRA’s overall safety program;
  • Developing a special section of NYRA Security called the horse watch detail, who receive additional training and have developed expertise in how to properly recognize and monitor the activities of third parties in NYRA barn areas; and
  • Collaborating on the “Strategic Plan to Reduce Racehorse Fatalities in the Mid-Atlantic.” As members of a group led by the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association; Scott Palmer, VMD, Dipl. ABVP, New York state equine medical director; and Joe Appelbaum, NYTHA president, along with Kathleen Anderson, DVM, and Reynolds Cowles, DVM, both former presidents of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, NYRA participated in the development of the Strategic Plan adopted in the Mid-Atlantic Region to incorporate regional safety best practices and improved methods to identify horses at increased risk of injury, implement protective factors to reduce the risk of injury, and improve the general health of the horse.