Regulators say sport is headed for safer future

It was a disturbing moment for anyone who cared about the Preakness Stakes or the broader state of thoroughbred racing.

When Havnameltdown sped around the far turn in the Chick Lang Stakes on the Preakness undercard last year, the 3-year-old colt buckled and threw his rider, Luis Saez. Moments later, attendees installed a dark screen around Havenmiltdown so that patrons at Pimlico Race Course and viewers of NBC’s race coverage wouldn’t see a vet giving the horse, which had broken its left front blade, Euthanasia shot.

Organizers were longing for a safe Preakness weekend while the sport was reeling Seven deaths during Kentucky Derby week earlier that month. It shouldn’t have been.

A few hours later, Haven’s coach, Bob Baffert, He celebrated his record eighth Preakness win With national treasure. That juxtaposition of victory and death, so familiar in a sport looking for meaningful safety reforms, lingered for many who watched the game. Baffert himself described it as a “very sad day.”

A year later, Preakness organizers, federal regulators and veterinarians charged with protecting these fast, fragile animals are once again hoping to avoid any deaths as Baltimore hosts the second jewel of the Triple Crown. They are optimistic that the racing industry is moving in the right direction on safety issues but realize that one unlucky move could further erode public confidence.

“When we were watching the Derby, my wife turned to me and said, ‘I’m holding my breath,'” said Alan Foreman, general counsel for the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association of Maryland, who has helped shape responses to clusters of racehorse deaths in Maryland and New York. “It’s a very slim margin.” For error now. We are doing everything we can, but we are under a microscope.”

“There’s a lot of interest in her,” said Dr. Dion Benson, chief veterinary officer for 1/ST Racing, which owns and operates Pimlico. “I honestly worry about every horse, every day. I think that’s our job.”

Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) Created by Congress to achieve national regulatory oversight To a decentralized industry, it has been operating for almost two years with injury prevention as one of its main goals.

After a Derby week devoid of fatal crashes, HISA officials are confident that multi-layered veterinary protocols, standardized drug testing and a deluge of data on risk factors will reduce the catastrophic injuries that have cast a pall over some of the sport’s most famous races. And places.

“I feel like there was a lot of effort, focus, work and commitment leading up to this year’s Derby – things that were different that were there definitely made a meaningful difference,” said HISA CEO Lisa Lazarus. “I think there has been a cultural shift. People have always loved their horses, but there is a real understanding of the necessity of keeping horses safe. If we cannot achieve that, then we do not deserve to be a sport.”

Preakness Week 2024 | the pictures

Injury rates have generally declined over the past 15 years, according to a database maintained by The Jockey Club, a New York-based organization that promotes industry reform, but fatal injuries increased from 1.25 per 1,000 starts in 2022 to 1.32 per 1,000 starts in 2023.

Safety is now a buzzword for everyone from superstar trainers to Hall of Fame jockeys, all of whom realize that a fatal injury in a Triple Crown race can create an existential crisis for their sport. Kenny McPeek, who trains Derby winner Mystic Dan, cited that as a reason he did not immediately commit to running his horse on just two weeks’ rest in the Preakness.

“I think the industry is definitely more focused on horse health,” McPeak said. “And that’s the way it’s always been, really. But we don’t want anything to go wrong on days like this.”

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association, which lobbies for the industry, ran a series of “Safety Goes First” television ads ahead of the Triple Crown races, touting recent reforms and promising technological advances that might reduce crashes.

Dr. Dion Benson, chief veterinary officer for The Stronach Group, inspects a horse at Pimlico Track on Wednesday morning.  (Jerry Jackson/Staff)
Dr. Dion Benson, chief veterinary officer for The Stronach Group, inspects a horse at Pimlico Track on Wednesday morning. (Jerry Jackson/Staff)

On the other hand, those who have studied these issues for decades are reluctant to place too much confidence, because much work remains in an effort that may never be completed. When horses die in droves, as happened last spring at Churchill Downs, Kentucky, the causes are often difficult to determine.

The Havenmeltdown case illustrates how difficult it is to judge this quest for greater equine safety. The colt was on California’s veterinarian’s list — meaning he was not allowed to race — for two weeks in April 2023 because he had been injected with medication into the joints of his hind limbs. Such injections are common and are only prohibited by HISA in the two weeks before a race. The horse did not fail any drug tests and was cleared to run by his own vet and the regulatory vets who monitored him at Pimlico.

But in A Recent investigations into the deaths Who took the Triple Crown Series by storm last year, the New York Times quoted two veterinarians who said Havnameltdown should not be allowed to run at Preakness Day because of lesions in his joints that showed up in his autopsy.

Benson and Lazarus disagreed.

“This is obviously making everyone angry,” Benson said. “It’s hard to say that for sure in retrospect. Intra-articular injections can be very convenient if done in the right way and for the right reasons; I can tell you, I personally have six horses that I ride, and it’s not uncommon for me to inject the hock from time to time. In fact It would be easier for me to say, “Yes, there’s definitely something I would have done differently, but it’s very difficult looking back. We certainly wanted a different result, but there’s nothing that stands out in the record, per se.” That would make me more careful about this horse.

Veterinarian Dr. Dionne Benson examines Faiza, the black-eyed Susan, at the Stakes Barn Thursday morning.
Veterinarian Dr. Dionne Benson examines Faiza, the black-eyed Susan, at last year’s Stakes Barn. Benson is the chief veterinary officer for 1/ST Racing, which owns and operates Pimlico Raceway. (Jerry Jackson/Staff)

HISA reviewed the collapse, and veterinarians found no conclusive evidence of an autopsy on Havenmeltdown, Lazarus said.

“However, we did not have the tools we have now,” the HISA CEO added. “We didn’t have the benefit of all that information gathered. We weren’t able to provide the same support to the Maryland race team and 1/ST that we will be able to provide this year. So I think it was an unfortunate accident, but I also feel like we have a lot more tools now. I hope that with what we have Now, we would realize that this horse was in increased danger.

As Benson looked forward to this year’s Preakness week, she noted that the veterinary examination of horses expected to be entered begins long before they arrive at Pimlico. They are examined by their own veterinarians, monitored at their home training tracks, and then monitored every day as they train at Pimlico by veterinarians working either at the Maryland Racing Commission or at the race track. Preakness horses are examined by regulatory veterinarians every morning starting on the Wednesday before the race, with a board-certified surgeon available to consult should any questions arise. Benson’s crew also uses AI-guided cameras to detect any abnormalities in each horse’s distinctive gait.

“There are more checks on these horses participating in the race than in any average race,” she said.

This is the first year that HISA will govern drug testing for the Preakness, although Benson noted that these federal regulations are similar to those used at Maryland tracks in recent years.

She and Lazarus expect that the influx of information coming from bio-tracking devices and artificial intelligence will improve decision-making about which horses may be more vulnerable to serious injury.

“Just about a month ago, we launched a new predictive model that looks at 44 different risk factors to see if a horse is at increased risk for injury,” Lazarus said. “We provide this information to the vets on the ground to help them with their inspections. The final piece of the puzzle is making sure the horses that arrive at the starting gate are ready to race.

Havnameltdown’s death was the first on a Preakness Day since 2016, when Homeboykris died after collapsing while returning to the barn after winning the first race and Pramedya was euthanized after breaking her front left leg after three races.

Lazarus noted that Maryland’s recent safety record has been excellent since a cluster of fatal injuries in the spring of 2023 raised concerns about the racing surface at Laurel Park. The fatal injury rate was 0.82 per 1,000 starts in Laurel last year and 0.71 per 1,000 starts in Pimlico, both well below the national average.

“It’s a challenge, it’s always going to be a challenge, but I think we’re in a much better position than we’ve been in for a long time,” Foreman said.

Although many racing participants are accustomed to crashes, accepting their inevitability is no longer the trend.

“We’re not done yet. ‘Yes, we’ve improved things, we’ve improved, but there’s room for improvement,'” Benson said. “Our target should be zero.”

149 Preakness Stakes

Pimlico Race Course

Saturday, approx. 6:50 pm

television: nbc

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