Report sheds light on NY racehorse deaths

Kathy Barrans
Updated: October 11, 2019 01:50 PM
Created: October 10, 2019 07:28 PM

Every summer, nearly 1 million people flock to the Saratoga Race Course to enjoy the excitement of thoroughbred racing. More and more, we are hearing about horses dying at the track.

Information about those deaths is quickly made public, but the details of each death are more difficult to access.


Using New York state's Freedom of Information Law, NewsChannel 13 has been working for years to get reports detailing findings on each horse death at the track.

Our first two requests for 2016 and 2017 were denied because the state Gaming Commission said investigations were ongoing.

We'll keep working to get those, but we did get a report from 2014. That report had 19 pages of findings from the state's Equine Safety Review Board.

Dr. Scott Palmer is the board chair and equine medical director for the state. 13 Investigates asked to speak with him, but was told no. So that left us without the most knowledgeable person on this report to interpret the information.

Among the 12 deaths detailed, Lifeguard on Duty -- a four-year-old filly -- was put down after fracturing her right front leg while training on July 24. The report shows eight days earlier, a small chip fracture was found on her left front leg.

That had us wondering, should she even have run?

Equine veterinarian Dr. Kraig Kulikowski, who has experience treating racehorses, says no.

"No chip fracture is going to heal in a week. You know, any bone fracture takes months for healing to occur," he explained.

The report says both legs were injected with drugs to treat pain and swelling six days before she suffered the injury that led to her death.

"It would have removed pain and inflammation from both joints that were treated, masking the pain and therefore making it difficult for the horse to protect that limb if it needed to be protecting that limb," he explained.

On July 28, Father John's Pride -- a three-year-old colt -- was euthanized after fracturing his left front fetlock during a race. The report reveals he was also given an anti-inflammatory and pain med and the necropsy showed evidence of bone remodeling.

Kulikowski says that it indicates a previous trauma to the bone.

In all, the report details six deaths caused by lower leg fracture and three cases with a pre-existing bone injury.

"These are two and three-year-old horses, juveniles, with either fractures or signs of arthritis," he noted.

He says part of the problem is that these horses are young. Their bodies are not fully developed.

"As a two-year-old, they're equivalent to a 6-year-old human. As a three-year-old, they're equivalent to a 9-year-old human. So if you've got 6 and 9-year-old humans with fractures and arthritis, I think it really begs the question. Are these animals being prepared properly and are they up for the task," he wondered.

While the Gaming Commission would not let NewsChannel 13 talk with Palmer, they did share his thoughts in an email on the age issue. He says, "It is necessary to exercise two-year-old horses at racing speeds to help them avoid injury while racing," and "Research over the past few years have shown that two-year-olds are less likely to experience fatal musculoskeletal injuries."

The report also repeatedly mentions pain and anti-inflammatory meds given to horses before racing -- a practice that is a concern for Kulikowski and it's a concern that is actually mirrored in the report.

On page 15, it says, "administration of anti-inflammatory medications in close proximity to a race can mask clinical signs of lameness that might otherwise be detected in the pre-race examination."

Nearly everywhere else in the world, race day meds are banned.

There is a push to do the same in the United States, but Kulikowski says with some drugs it wouldn't matter.

"If you give a drug that lasts two weeks, stopping race day medications doesn't necessarily make a difference," he pointed out.

NewsChannel 13 asked NYRA and the Gaming Commission about this as well. It was included in a long list of questions we sent right after we went through the 2014 report, but we never got answers.

NewsChannel 13 will keep pushing for reports on the more recent deaths and let you know what we find.

MORE INFORMATION: New York Equine Safety Review Board report on 2014 Saratoga Race Course meet Dr. Kraig Kulikowski’s testimony before NYS Senate Public Hearing on the Welfare of Racehorses on June 5, 2019

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