‘We Are Very Concerned’: Belmont Fall Meet Fatalities Are Up But Cause Remains Unclear

by | 09.26.2019 | 1:19pm
Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y.

From a safety perspective, Belmont Park's fall meet isn't off to a very good start. In the three weeks since the meet began on Sept. 6, four horses have died in racing, with another three suffering fatal injuries in training. An additional eight are listed as “racing incidents” in the New York State Gaming Commission's database, meaning they were pulled up in a race but did not suffer fatal injuries. 

As of Sept. 25, 896 horses have completed a total of 938 starts at the meet, putting the track significantly over the national average of 1.68 racing fatalities per 1,000 starts. Last year, Belmont Park (which makes its statistics publicly available through the Equine Injury Database) was well below the national average with .98 fatalities per 1,000 starts.

Racing and training fatalities have so far occurred on multiple surfaces. Causes, when available in the New York State Gaming Commission database, also seem to vary, from cardiac/sudden deaths to fractures. These figures do not include deaths which did not occur as a direct or immediate result of injuries suffered in racing or exercise, such as colic or laminitis. 

Training and racing fatalities already number 24 at Belmont Park for this year. Last year's year-end total was 21, six of which came during the fall meet. Looking back over data for previous years, the track has typically seen roughly two-thirds of its total fatalities for the year at this point in the calendar. If that proportion holds, this will be the worst year on record for Belmont since 2012. 

The New York Racing Association's Patrick McKenna said the organization is in the process of reviewing data surrounding the incidents. 

“The health and welfare of horses and jockeys competing at NYRA tracks is our highest priority and one that stands above all other considerations,” said McKenna, director of communications for NYRA. “NYRA is working closely with the New York State Equine Medical Director and the New York State Gaming Commission to review the circumstances surrounding each of these recent incidents. As this process moves forward, and the Equine Safety Review Board performs its detailed analysis, NYRA is enhancing existing pre-race veterinary scrutiny and further analyzing relevant data to ensure that we are providing the safest possible environment for training and racing at Saratoga Race Course, Belmont Park and Aqueduct Racetrack. 

“The science and technology that supports safe racing is constantly evolving. NYRA is committed to adopting and implementing the best proven safety practices in consultation with independent experts, veterinarians and horsemen. While our efforts have yielded positive, consistent results since 2013, there is always more work to be done to increase safety and move the sport forward.”

Earlier this year, multiple Mid-Atlantic racing jurisdictions announced the release of a strategic plan to continue to reduce racing fatalities. Many of the plan's elements incorporated recommendations from the 2012 New York Task Force Report on Race Horse Health and Safety, which was released after Aqueduct had a highly-publicized rash of breakdowns. According to the release, many of these elements were already in place and were credited with a 29 percent reduction in fatalities throughout the region since 2012.

Dr. Scott Palmer, New York State Gaming Commission Equine Medical Director and New York Task Force Chairman, was a key author of the strategic plan. Dr. Palmer did not respond to multiple queries from the Paulick Report about the recent breakdowns at the fall meet and whether the commission was implementing any additional measures to protect horses for the remaining weeks of the meet. 

Brad Maione, spokesman for the New York State Gaming Commission, did not respond to the same question from the Paulick Report by press time. 

Both Palmer and Maione are state employees.

The Mid-Atlantic plan, which was co-authored by Palmer, includes a list of “strategic directions” for the region. One of the items on the list is “communicate our efforts to the general public.” 

“Our plan is, and has to be, the number one priority for the racing industry,” Palmer was quoted as saying in the release earlier this year. “The decrease in equine fatalities in the Mid-Atlantic region over the last four years is due in no small part to the introduction of a number of safety initiatives. That's a good piece of news. It is important to recognize the progress we have made and encourage other jurisdictions to follow.

“Now we have to get behind this plan in an aggressive fashion going forward.”

Editor's note: After publication of this story, Maione reached out to the Paulick Report with the following statement on behalf of the New York State Gaming Commission:

“We are very concerned about the recent fatalities at Belmont Park.  While our initial review of the cases does not point to a single common cause for the injuries, we have been working with NYRA and the NYTHA [New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association] to ensure that best practices are being followed in all areas of horse care, veterinary supervision and facility management. While isolated clusters of equine fatalities do occur from time to time, our real-time racing risk management program has proven to be successful in significantly reducing injuries at New York racetracks over the past six years. Our program includes the development and dissemination of best practices and evidence-based interventions that evolve over time. In fact, we anticipate to soon make adjustments to the risk management protocols to increase protection of equine athletes in New York.”

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