Updated: 08/29/2014 3:47 PM
Created: 08/28/2014 4:11 PM WNYT.com
By: Mark Mulholland
UPDATE: The NYS Gaming Commission announced an investigation on equine safety is underway, one day after this story originally aired. You can read their full statement here.
SARATOGA SPRINGS - They rumble from the starting gate to the delight of race fans.
When they win, we celebrate.
When they lose, we complain.
When they fall, we hold our breath.
Like in the 1st race on Monday when a steeplechase horse fell and broke its neck, dying instantly.
The New York Racing Association says it goes to great lengths to ensure the safety of its equine athletes.
In fact this year, for the first time, they've added a full-time safety steward.
It's Hugh Gallagher's job to patrol the barns and randomly check out the horses that will race that day. "It sends a signal to the trainers and the racing community that there's another layer of inspection now," said Gallagher.
If he sees something wrong, he contacts a NYRA vet and the horse is often scratched from the race. He and NYRA inspector John McDonnell are also on the lookout for illegal medications and banned substances.
Gallagher says that no matter what steps they take, there's always a chance that a horse can misstep or has a heart problem that couldn't be detected.
The number of horse deaths this year is up from last year when eight died at Saratoga. Five related to racing, three during training.
Through Wednesday, 12 horses had died this year.
"I am physically ill when I have a horse break down. I love these horses. It's like my child," said veteran trainer Gary Contessa before Gallagher and McDonnell inspected two of his horses Thursday morning.
Susan Kayne, a former race horse owner and breeder, says the problem of horses suffering fatal injuries isn't unique to New York, but more can and should be done. She says horses are medicated to run beyond their physical capabilities and if there was a truly independent veterinarian keeping watch over them, fewer would die.
"NYRA needs horses to fill races in order to get handle and make money, there's no third party or objective party who is truly a voice for the wellbeing of the animals on the track," said Kayne.