Friday, January 21, 2011

One Unnecessary Death is Too Many - UPDATE

UPDATE: When racing resumed today, after a snow day, the rails to the outer track remained closed while horse were on the inner track. Gotta give credit to NYRA for moving quickly once the problem was pointed out to them.

With apologies to Bob:

Yes, ’n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many horses have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Bob Dylan, Blowin’ in the Wind, from The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, Copyright © 1962 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1990 by Special Rider Music

One unnecessary death of a thoroughbred is one too many. Yesterday at Aqueduct there was almost another one. Luckily, and no thanks to NYRA, the horse escaped injury. Since it was my – and my partners in Castle Village Farm’s – horse, I guess I take it personally.

Here’s what happened. Our horse, Iguazu, was entered in Aqueduct’s 3rd race, a $35,000 maiden claiming sprint on the Aqueduct inner track. Iguazu, a four-year-old by Smoke Glacken, missed his entire three-year-old season with knee problems, and yesterday would have been his third start since the layoff, coming after good 2nd- and 3rd-place finishes in the prior races. With a six-horse field, and only one “ringer,” (a Todd Pletcher drop-down), the small but enthusiastic group of partners in attendance had dreams of the winners’ circle.

But Iguazu, calm in the paddock and the post parade, became agitated in the starting gate and broke through the barrier, taking off around the track minus jockey David Cohen, who was unhurt and who returned to win the next race. Whether the presence of an assistant starter flicking his whip behind the gate had anything to do with Iguazu’s false start is something we’ll never know, since Iguazu is unlikely to tell us, but using whips at the gate is a dangerous practice, and something that rarely if ever happened when super horseman Bobby Duncan was NYRA’s starter.

In the event, Iguazu took off around the inner track, and the NYRA outriders apparently decided that, rather than giving chase, they’d let him have a seven-furlong workout. So the outriders congregated down on the clubhouse turn, where, it seemed, it should be relatively easy to corral a loose and presumably somewhat tired horse. But NYRA’s outrider crew, like the starting gate staff, seems to have fallen off from the days when it was the best in the country. Even though Iguazu slowed down and cantered into the trap the outriders had set up, somehow they failed to grab him and in fact set him off at a gallop once again, this time in the opposite direction, back toward the finish line in front of the grandstand. Iguazu, by this point thoroughly confused, burst through the temporary rail separating the inner track from the paddock area and then, to our horror, galloped on through a gap in the rail that blocked off the Aqueduct main track, which is closed in winter and which was under a layer of ice and snow.

Earlier this season, another horse had escaped onto the main track, skidded on the icy surface and crashed into a pole, fracturing bones and having to be put down. After that incident, NYRA supposedly adopted a policy that would keep horses off the outer track, putting up temporary rails to seal off the two gaps where horses could cross to the outer. Except that the policy itself seemed to have a gap in it.

The racing gods must have been watching, though, because Iguazu made it around the ice-covered main track and down the ramp into the barn area, where he was eventually caught by a backstretch worker near Barn 7. He returned safely to trainer Bruce Brown’s barn at Belmont, where today he seems in good shape and eager to return to the races. A brief report on the incident by Dave Grening of the Daily Racing Form is here.

Most of us in this business are not expecting to make money. As my previous posts have shown, it’s very difficult indeed to make a profit owning race horses in New York. We’re in the game because we love horses, and we love the thrill of the winners’ circle. So, when something stupid and unnecessary threatens the safety of our horses, we understandably get upset.

And allowing Iguazu to get on the hazardous outer track yesterday was unnecessary and showed both incompetence (possibly by the gate crew and certainly by the outriders) and stupidity (in designing a “safety” policy that is in fact unsafe).

I wrote to NYRA CEO Charlie Hayward this morning, seeking an explanation of why Iguazu had been permitted to get onto the outer track. To NYRA’s credit, I received a very prompt answer from NYRA’s horsemen’s liaison, former trainer Bruce Johnstone. Here’s Bruce’s email, and my reply:


I have been made aware of your concerns regarding our “not having the rail in place”. Please let me lead you through our premise as regards this situation. As pointed out this temporary rail was put into place after a previous bad outcome to a horse getting loose crossing the Main track prior to entering the Inner. The procedure is for the gaps in each temporary rail to be closed prior to the horses leaving the Paddock on the way to the Inner. When the horses have all entered the Inner, the gap rail is put into place. The attendant then opens the aforementioned gaps in both temporary rails on the Main. The reason for this is, when the race commences the field is being followed by both the human ambulance on the Inner and the Track Veterinarian on the Main. The gaps on the main are open in case an injury occurs past the wire and the vet needs to attend to the horse. In addition the horse ambulance is positioned on the Main and if needed it has access to Inner through this gap. Having said all this it didn’t help you as your horse took it to another level. If you would like to further discuss this you can reach me at –[deleted] – Hoping this gives you some picture of an actual protocol in place. Also glad he wasn’t injured.

And here’s my reply:


I understand the protocol. But I just think it's incredibly stupid, as it totally negates the reason for having the rail in place to begin with. Why not just position the track vet's SUV on the inner track to start with, If there's enough room for the ambulance on the inner track, there should be enough room for the vet as well. As for the horse ambulance, it would be a matter of seconds to have someone open the gaps on the main if there's an injury.

I understand NYRA's policy, but it ain't nearly good enough. How many dead horses will it take to come up with something better?

Steve Zorn

Well, my pointing out the fallacies in NYRA’s “protocol” may yet produce changes that will protect other horses. A subsequent message from Bruce Johnstone comments that “you are not offbase in your thoughts” and promises that he’ll be consulting with the powers that be at NYRA, in this case apparently Racing Secretary P J Campo and NYRA Executive VP/Chief Operating Officer Hal Handel. We’ll see.

I wonder if, on this as on so many other decisions, NYRA bothered to consult anyone who actually knew anything about horses. If they’d talked to almost any trainer beforehand, it’s hard to imagine that they wouldn’t have been nudged toward something closer to my suggestions that would have actually increased safety, rather than leaving a large gap for a scared horse to run through.

Sorry about going on at this length, but when it’s your horse that’s almost killed by someone else’s stupidity, it’s difficult not to be upset.