The New York Racing Association is defending a decision to end winter training at Aqueduct racetrack, effective Jan. 1, in the face of opposition from a group of horsemen who have signed a petition expressing concerns for safety during the afternoon races at the Ozone Park, N.Y., racetrack.
The petition, addressed to Dr. Scott Palmer, equine medical director for the New York State Gaming Commission, and signed by nearly 60 horsemen, referred to the move as a “purely economic decision” that was “very short sighted.”
The approximately 230 horses currently based at Aqueduct will be vanned nine miles to Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., to stable and train over the one-mile training track there (the main track is closed for training during the winter).
“We as horsemen are adamant about the possibility of breakdowns and injuries to our horses if we race over a track that has no training,” the petition reads. “Especially in the hard winter months of January, February and March. There is no other track in the United States that runs a race meeting and does not have training over that surface.
“We believe that our industry cannot afford even the slightest increase in the possibility of breakdowns as Santa Anita has experienced. We simply do not need the bad press. In this environment this is no time to begin experimenting with the negative light and the magnifying glass on our industry.
“Because of your proactive advice and concern for the safety of our horses NYRA has been able to cut the fatality rate. This is something we are very appreciative of and do not take for granted.
“We, the undersigned horsemen, plead with you to please PROTECT OUR HORSES and convince the officials at NYRA that this experiment will be a disaster. The safety of our horses comes first and foremost and the economics play no part when it comes to the safety of our horses, our jockeys, and our industry.”
Pat McKenna, NYRA's communications director, said the “consolidation of winter training activities to Belmont Park follows years of barn renovations and new construction, resulting in a facility that now features 2,500 stalls and can easily accommodate the 230 horses who previously resided at Aqueduct as well as the 1,200-1,300 horses generally stabled at Belmont during the winter months.”
McKenna pointed out that Belmont provides multiple options for horsemen during winter. In addition to the training track, which was fully renovated and widened in 2016, Belmont has two covered jogging barns, each with a synthetic surface, and a quarter-mile pony track.
Because the vast majority of Aqueduct starters have historically been stabled at Belmont, McKenna said, NYRA “places a great deal of focus on maintaining the Belmont training track in a way that is consistent with the surface at Aqueduct. All track maintenance decisions at both venues are made with this goal in mind and are informed directly by scientific data matched with current and forecast weather conditions.
“The health and welfare of horses and jockeys training and competing at NYRA tracks is our highest priority and one that stands above all other considerations,” McKenna added. “Prior to making this decision, NYRA conducted a full analysis of the main track at Aqueduct and consulted with outside experts and the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory to ensure that surface quality and consistency would not be compromised in any way. As a result, we are confident that the main track at Aqueduct will continue to be one of the safest and most consistent surfaces in the sport.”
Mick Peterson, executive director of the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory, said he has “exactly the opposite take” of horsemen who are concerned about racing over a track that is not used for training in the morning. Some horsemen feel it's important to give feedback to the track superintendent after training hours in order to make adjustments prior to racing.
“Having the entire morning to prepare to get the track ready for racing and not have horses on it is ideal,” Peterson said. “It's much better if you don't have to prepare it for training in the morning, especially after an overnight freeze.”
The Aqueduct main track was completely renovated in 2017 while a second turf course was added to replace the inner dirt track. The inner turf course was given a new surface for the opening of the fall meet in 2018.
The horsemen's petition was done independently from the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, but the organization's president, Joe Appelbaum, said the NYTHA board is very much aware of the concerns.
“The petition represents the frustration the trainers have generally with communications and the precariousness of the whole business model,” Appelbaum said. “The board has been working with NYRA to ensure the trainers who are being moved will be treated fairly, and we are all vigilant in monitoring the safety of the Aqueduct surface and the Belmont training track. Those are things we have to keep our eyes open for and continue to monitor the situation.”
Appelbaum said NYRA is paying for shipping the horses from Aqueduct to Belmont Park as well as for new bedding for stalls. He did say there will be added cost for those trainers who now will have to send grooms to Aqueduct to race, citing different wage rates in the two different counties on Long Island in which the tracks are located.
“These are not easy issues,” Appelbaum said. “We have so many trainers that are feeling economic pressure and are nervous about their ability to earn a living and about the future of the sport. Things are changing very quickly in many areas of our sport and that always causes fears and concerns with those who have to change with it. An underlying economic insecurity drives this.”
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