The Aqueduct injury report: at last, we wait no more

In the five months since the first target date for the Aqueduct injury report came and went, rumors and questions abounded about its contents and the process by which it was compiled. Through much of the Saratoga meet, whispers of new release dates circulated weekly, with no official information coming from either the governor’s office or the State Racing and Wagering Board. Waiting for the report began to take on a Godot-ish feeling.

Last Thursday evening at 7:30, the governor’s office announced that the report would be unveiled at noon the next day (though details of it were unveiled around midnight that night by one publication) in an Albany press conference. Given the orchestrated nature of the press conference, the curiously short lead time lent just one more layer of apparent absurdity to the process.

What is heartening, though, is that perhaps against all odds, the report itself redeems the entire, drawn-out process. Its 209 pages are thorough, detailed, and readable, full of information that should serve not only racing in New York, but racing nationwide.

Among the disturbing elements of the report were the revelations about the relationship between the NYRA veterinarians and the racing office. The report says that NYRA veterinarians reported being instructed to exclude significant findings from morning pre-race examinations from a horse’s regulatory health record; that a trainer was able to request that a certain veterinarian no longer examine his horses; that recommended scratches were overturned or refused by the racing office; and that veterinarians were instructed to re-evaluate horses after they recommended a scratch.

While NYRA had in place protocols for pre-race examinations and scratches, NYRA veterinarians said that they were unaware of these protocols and had never seen them.

While suggesting that the use of medications can hamper veterinarians’ and trainers’ ability to appropriately assess horses’ physical conditions, the task force members found no association between the horses that broke down and the use of phenylbutazone (bute) or Lasix.

While phenylbutazone, flunixin and ketoprofen are prescription medications, these medications are not, as has been suggested by others, appropriately characterized as “powerful painkillers.”

For years, at the request of the NYWRWB and NYRA, the Laboratory has routinely monitored the concentrations of NSAIDs and in post-race blood samples collected from horses at the NYRA tracks. The Laboratory [New York Equine Drug Testing and Research Laboratory at Morrisville State College under the direction of Dr. George Maylin] used the ARCI Model Rule thresholds as its LOD [level of detection] for the NSAIDs. The Laboratory advised the Task Force that concentrations of NSAIDs in blood samples from the NYRA tracks have been consistently well below the NYSRWB and ARCI Model Rule thresholds, and is evidence of ongoing compliance with the NYSRWB rule governing the administration of NSAIDs. While there was one positive test for an excessive concentration of phenylbutazone during the periods of this investigation, the Laboratory advised the Task Force that positive tests for excessive concentrations of NSAIDs from NYRA horses are rare. Despite concerns in other States that concentrations of phenylbutazone and flunixin, as detected in post-race samples, may be compromising pre-race examinations, this has not been the case in New York. [emphasis mine]

The Task Force also found that “there was no statistically significant difference…between the proportion of injured horses that received phenylbutazone and the proportion of the uninjured horses that received phenylbutazone.”

Still, the report issued a caution about the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as phenylbutazone, flunixin (Banamine) and ketoprofen “to manage conditions associated with athletic training and to minimize the development of degenerative joint disease (a consequence of athletic training over time).”

While this medication philosophy is sound and of benefit to the health and welfare of the horse in active training, the consistent use of NSAIDs outside of competition and during training may obscure minor changes in a horse’s condition (i.e. heat or filling in a joint, or subtle changes in gait), making it more difficult for a trainer to assess a horse’s response to race training. The inability to recognize and appropriately address minor orthopedic conditions may contribute to the occurrence of more severe injury.

The Task Force suggested a link between the use of medication and injury in eight of the 21 Aqueduct fatalities, and speculated about a link in two others while finding that the track and state protocols for the use of intra-articular corticosteroids were not followed. Under a state rule, trainers are required to notify stewards of these injections in writing before a horse is entered to race; the Task Force found “no compliance” with this rule and no enforcement of it from the State Racing and Wagering Board.

The failure of trainers to report intra-articular injections as required by NYWRWB Rule 4043.2, and the failure of the NYSRWB to monitor compliance with and enforce this Rule, prevented the NYSRWB and the NYRA veterinarians from identifying a pattern of redundant intra-articular corticosteroid treatments that had the potential to misrepresent the true clinical condition of a horse and confound the examining veterinarian’s pre-race assessment.

In addition to the role of the veterinarians and medication, the Task Force examined the weather, the racing surface, the condition book, claiming races and rules, shoeing practices, and extracorporeal shockwave therapy. It concluded that with different practices, 11 of the 21 horses may have avoided breaking down on the track.

The Task Force made 29 recommendations (available beginning on p. 17 of the executive summary); Governor Cuomo followed up with 16 directives to NYRA and the Racing and Wagering Board.

Any industry that involves both animal welfare and human profit is going to be fraught with ethical and financial conflicts. Taking good care of animals is expensive; making money from them, particularly in racing, is hard…and not always advisable. It’s easy to say that the animal should always come before profit, but without profit, it’s hard to take care of the animal, something to keep in mind as purse levels are discussed. While it seems clear that increased profits led to some bad decisions last winter, there’s a point at which lower purses will make it harder to care well for the horses. As the report noted regarding the breakdown of Almighty Silver:

In this case the availability of augmented purses may have created a situation in which the trainer could afford to invest seven weeks of care and training in a lower level claiming horse before running him back.

Many of the Task Force’s recommendations make sense. Some will be hard to implement, for reasons of cost or logistics, and it may well make sense not to accept all of them. Whatever changes are made, though, protocols are only as good as the people who practice and enforce them. As the report shows, in several cases good protocols were already in place—it’s just that no one was paying attention to them.

An ugly winter and an uneasy spring and summer have yielded what looks like a major step forward in Thoroughbred racing. And credit for it is due, in addition to those who participated in the investigation, to the three New York beat writers who refused to stop noting the unusual breakdowns at Aqueduct.

Between early February and mid-March, Jerry Bossert (New York Daily News), Ed Fountaine (New York Post), and David Grening (Daily Racing Form) wrote no fewer than 13 times about equine breakdowns at Aqueduct. Bossert and Grening sent out dozens of tweets to their thousands of followers, noting each breakdown, keeping track of the numbers, asking questions at the racetrack. It seems conceivable that this report would never have happened without their scrupulous attention, without their knowledge of this circuit and its history, and without their refusal to accept the breakdowns as “part of the game.”

The Task Force’s full report (209 pages) and executive summary (21 pages); Governor Cuomo’s press release and directives.

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5 thoughts on “The Aqueduct injury report: at last, we wait no more

  1. I am not blaming anyone here. It does occur to me that the NYRA tracks are certified as being safe by the NTRA. I wonder why the NTRA process did not catch any of these process issues. Not reporting the the use of intra-articular injections should have stuck out. I think.

  2. After scanning the report some things strike me as odd but I haven’t read the entire report to present a fully confident argument. So, let me know if I’m all wet.
    Regarding the relationship between the vets and the racing office, did the report offer any specific instances where a horse was injured after being in some way pressured to run by Campo’s team?
    My cursory read was there was (is) evidence that a “culture” existed.
    Well if the “culture” is being blamed for the breakdowns, how when the same culture exists at other tracks do they manage to not kill 21 horses?
    Also…has there been a significant culture change in the five months waiting for this report that might explain why breakdowns have decreased? Certainly vigilence is higher (cue Grening’s Late Scratch Ditty), but there hasn’t been an infusion of new veterinary talent or changes to the way exams are done while this report was written, have there?
    And in the end, it seems like the report can only definitively say about a third to half of the events could have been prevented. Considering the media attention and drum-banging by an opportunistic New York Times and governor’s office, it is safe to say this process would have taken place had there been a rash of 12 breakdowns instead of 21. If there had been procedures to protect the 11 “unnecessary” deaths, how then would they justify the task force over those hypothetically unexplained deaths?
    Indeed it will be good to make many of the reforms the task force recommends, but I see this report as pretty much a self-fulfilling prophecy and a justification of a takeover by the governor with an assist from an editorial board with similar sympathies.

  3. Another great article, well explained, easy read,written with passion for the game u love. The part about the purses was excellent, that it is expensive to keep a race horse and lowering purses can have an effect of not giving a horse time off because of the expense and therefore has to b raced even if he is not 100.
    As

  4. As a part time writer your research is better than the guys that write full time.
    Your writing is head and shoulders over Ed Fountain and he covers racing every day.
    Keep up the good work.

  5. Sal: The report notes that there are serious discrepancies between what NYRA said it was doing and what was actually happening with regard to some of the procedures; the NTRA gave some of the protocols a “best practices” designation–and I saw that the NTRA has now said that it might implement follow-up/spot checks to accreditation.

    Rolly: The report said, as does the EID, that equine injury is hard to pin down on one cause, so there are no direct correlations for any of the deaths; what is emphasized is that the variety of factors that may have contributed this past winter.

    And even if nothing that’s in the report can point conclusively to even one death, surely the knowledge of bad practices that can be improved/alleviated is a good thing down the road?

    Kind of you to say, Joe, but I really respect what those guys do every day…and like I said, without them, it was they who were paying attention all winter.

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