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Editorial: More must be done to reduce horse deaths

Wednesday, September 3, 2014
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Even with stricter measures in place to prevent injuries and deaths among racehorses in the past few years, an unusual rash of deaths at Saratoga this year indicates that even more needs to be done to protect these noble animals.

Up until the past week or so, the racecourse was not experiencing an unusual level of injuries or deaths due to racing and training.

But after the deaths of three horses within five days, including two on Travers Day, the state Gaming Commission issued a statement Friday, three days before the end of the summer meet, detailing the alarming number of equine fatalities at the track this year.

Someone once described a racehorse as “1,000 pounds supported by four pencils.” Racehorses are young and high-strung, and their bodies are not really designed to protect them from the type of injuries they face in training and racing. So some injuries are inevitable. But not all of them.

To its credit, the state, through a task force, had already begun addressing injuries and fatalities. But apparently, its recommendations from 2012 haven’t been enough to bring the numbers down significantly.

To be fair, it’s difficult to pin down a single source for the spike. For instance, two horses, Kamarius and Elena Strikes, each suffered a broken leg while "breezing" during training. Makari died after jumping a hurdle in the steeplechase. Double Gold flopped against a fence, became paralyzed and died. Others died for other reasons.

One scary situation is known as "sudden death," in which a horse just collapses, sometimes during a light workout or walking off the track, for seemingly no reason. Sir William Bruce pulled up without incident after a race, collapsed and died. The commission on Friday attributed three horse deaths at Saratoga this year to sudden death.

The reason for these sudden deaths — heart ailments, previous health conditions or undetected injuries — need to be rooted out and examinations given to flag problems before they become serious. That should include more extensive pre-race tests, on-track exams after races, and other steps that might indicate a horse's inclination to fall victim to an ailment.

The industry also can do more to prevent the kinds of injuries that killed Double Gold, such as better fencing. It also needs to make steeplechase races safer, such as by eliminating permanent, inflexible structures over which horses must jump.

These can be done immediately.

Then there is the potential influence of drugs. A 2012 investigative report by The New York Times found that despite new measures to reduce the impact of performance-enhancing drugs and pain-killers that mask injuries, these illegal activities are still taking place in the industry. Are illegal substances contributing to the safety problems in New York? Investigate.

No matter what's been done up to this point, the goal of the industry should be zero deaths.

These animals are racing for our benefit. They deserve nothing less than the state's best efforts to protect them.

 
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