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Big Purses, Sore Horses, and Death

US Horses
Big Purses, Sore Horses, and Death

As he trained for his first race, at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, the 3-year-old thoroughbred Wes Vegas galloped on the track most mornings and had two timed workouts. But his handlers also prepared him in another way: In the month before the race, records show, he received 10 intravenous injections of potent drugs for pain, one the day before he ran; two injections of a drug for joint disease; corticosteroid injections in his two front ankles; a sedative; and an ulcer drug.

For all the preparation, that first race, on March 3, turned out to be his last.

As he approached the first turn, Wes Vegas broke a leg and had to be euthanized.

A week earlier, another horse, the 4-year-old Coronado Heights, who records show had “early degenerative joint disease,” suffered a fatal breakdown at Aqueduct after receiving 13 injections for pain and cartilage damage in the month before his race.

Since a casino opened at Aqueduct late last year, offering vastly richer prizes, 30 horses have died racing there, a 100 percent increase in the fatality rate over the same period the previous year. Like Wes Vegas and Coronado Heights, many had been injected repeatedly with pain medication in the weeks before their breakdowns, according to a review of veterinary records by The New York Times.

Pain medication during training is legal as long as it does not exceed certain levels on race day. But the prevalence of drugs is a graphic illustration of how the flood of casino cash has created powerful and dangerous incentives to run sore, tired or otherwise unfit horses in pursuit of that big score.

“If the public knew how many medications these horses were administered after entry time, I don’t think they would tolerate it,” said Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director of the California Horse Racing Board.

Amid the uproar over the Aqueduct death toll, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York ordered an investigation to “ensure against needless injuries to horses and to riders.” Experts are examining various factors — not just drugs, but issues like track conditions and pre-race inspections.

But what is indisputable is that casinos opening at Aqueduct and a growing number of racetracks have recalibrated the age-old economic equations of the horse-racing game.

To survive amid a riot of new, technologically advanced gambling options, track owners have increasingly succumbed to the gambling industry’s offer to sweeten racing purses with slot machine revenue. But if casinos promise to prop up a struggling sport, they can also erode the loyalty that owners and trainers feel toward their horses, turning them, in the words of Maggi Moss, a leading owner, into “trading cards for people’s greed.”

The casinos’ impact is greatest at the sport’s low end, the so-called claiming races, a world away from the bluegrass pageantry of Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. In the claiming ranks — where some of the cheapest horses fill starting gates at tracks like Aqueduct, Penn National, near Harrisburg, Pa., and Evangeline Downs in Louisiana — the casino money has upset the traditional racetrack balance of risk and reward.

“It’s strictly self-centered greed of not thinking about the horse but thinking about maybe I can get one more race out of him and get a piece of the game,” said Dr. Tom David, until recently the chief veterinarian for the Louisiana Racing Commission.

To better protect the horses, some industry experts say, purses should be limited so the potential winnings in any race do not exceed the value of the horses running in it. That way, the incentive for the owner is to care for the horse over the long haul, rather than risking it for a single payday. A prominent veterinarians group, the American Association of Equine Practitioners, recommends that no purse exceed a horse’s value by more than 50 percent.

Yet that recommendation is widely ignored, The Times found.

At Aqueduct, horses worth $7,500 — at the lowest level of competition — recently raced for a $40,000 purse, nearly four times the recommended maximum. Two of them broke down and had to be euthanized. Both had been given pain medication in the days leading up to the race. In all, 19 of the 30 Aqueduct deaths occurred in races where the veterinarians’ standard was violated.

Nationwide, 57 percent of thoroughbred claiming races at casino tracks exceeded that 50 percent standard, and horses broke down or showed signs of injury at a 29 percent higher rate in those races, according to a Times analysis.

In a statement, the New York Racing Association said “it would be inappropriate and irresponsible of The New York Times to speculate on the reasons for breakdowns and injuries” before the governor’s task force has finished its inquiry.

Big purses have destabilized the racetrack economy in another way. Every claiming race is essentially a marketplace, with all horses for sale at a fixed price. But the casino money has set off a frenzy of horse trading at Aqueduct, with owners eager to buy and also to sell to slake the surging demand. Since the casino opened late last fall, nearly 500 horses and $10.7 million have changed hands, more than double the previous year, records show.

Again, the incentive is to push horses, fit or not, out onto the track.

“If horses don’t win, people just get rid of them,” Ms. Moss said.

The turmoil at Aqueduct over the last six months caught many in the industry by surprise. But a cautionary tale played out two years before at Penn National, where nine horses belonging to a single owner died while racing, prompting a boycott by jockeys. State investigators discovered evidence of serious problems in the owner’s operation: trainers and other employees injecting horses with illegal drugs and administering other illicit treatments at an off-track training center.

When the Hollywood Casino arrived in 2008, Penn National became part of a casino expansion that now encompasses more than a third of the nation’s thoroughbred racetracks. Gambling companies, state budgets and some horse owners have benefited, but the spread of casinos has left many people wondering if in the long run, casino gambling is hurting racing and the horses themselves.

“In spite of what they say, and they are my friends whom I love dearly, they do not care about horse racing,” William Koester, of the Ohio State Racing Commission, said recently of the casino industry. “They care about gaming. That is their mission.”

Lame and Still Racing

Melodeeman, a 10-year-old thoroughbred, had earned a rest.

He raced gallantly for six owners. He set a track record at Aqueduct for the fastest five and a half furlongs and earned more than $250,000 in his career. He raced even after a broken leg was put back together with three stainless-steel screws.

But by the evening of Jan. 21, 2010, Melodeeman had hit the bottom of the racing world. As the temperature hovered near freezing at Penn National, he prepared to compete among the lowest quality thoroughbreds.

In a different time, Melodeeman might have skipped this race, or retired altogether. Not now. Not here. Profits from the track’s casino had fattened the purse to $18,000, far more than the $4,000 for which each horse could be purchased, or claimed — precisely the kind of cost disparity that prominent veterinarians had warned against.

Eager to get in on the action, three people filed claims to buy three horses in the race.

No one tried to buy Melodeeman.

According to one exercise rider who saw the horse well before the race, Melodeeman was clearly lame. But Melodeeman raced anyhow that evening.

Turning for home, his front legs buckled, sending his jockey, Angel Quinones, flying. Melodeeman had snapped his right cannon bone and was euthanized at the track, almost four years to the day after he set his Aqueduct record.

State regulators were suspicious. Other horses belonging to the same owner, Michael Gill, had been breaking down in large numbers, and jockeys were complaining.

A subsequent necropsy revealed that Melodeeman not only had degenerative joint disease in the lower part of his two front legs, but that his fatal fracture occurred next to the earlier break mended with three screws. The examiners were concerned enough to have snapped a color photograph of the screws.

A prohibited sedative, fluphenazine, was also found in Melodeeman’s brain, according to records obtained by The Times. Fluphenazine can calm a horse that becomes agitated because of discomfort or injury, according to two veterinarians.

Melodeeman’s fatal breakdown was not quickly forgotten by jockeys on the backside at Penn National. A revolt was brewing.

Jockeys Fight Back

Mr. Gill made his fortune in the mortgage brokerage business before becoming one of the nation’s most successful — and controversial — thoroughbred owners. He was a winner of the Eclipse Award as the nation’s outstanding owner, but tracks in several states denied him stable space because of brushes with regulators over his treatment of horses. He set up a training center in Chester County, Pa., giving him easy access to three casino tracks, among them Penn National.

Although the casino there does a steady business, the track itself seems almost an afterthought. It sits behind the parking garage, barely visible from the gambling floor. On many nights, the few racing fans who show up outside buy programs from a vending machine and beer at a single counter.

But there was no secret why Mr. Gill had made Penn National the hub of his operation: the hefty purses.

Now, Melodeeman’s death threatened to upend it all.

The next morning, Thomas Clifton, a veteran jockey, complained to the state racing commission’s office at Penn National that Mr. Gill’s horses were unsafe. He had been making similar complaints for a month.

“The horses go perfectly sound right up to the second they snap their leg off,” Mr. Clifton said. The following day he came back with a warning: “If we have one more horse break down, we are going to have a major problem on our hands.”

That night, riding in the fifth race, Mr. Clifton heard a bone snap and saw another jockey, Ricky Frazier, vaulting off a horse named Laughing Moon. Mr. Clifton yanked his own mount, but they still went soaring over Laughing Moon.

Within minutes, Mr. Frazier was in an ambulance and a veterinarian was administering a lethal injection to Laughing Moon, the ninth Gill horse to die racing in 10 months.

That is when the jockeys decided to take a stand: They would not ride in any race with a Gill-owned horse.

Their boycott cast a harsh light on the Pennsylvania Racing Commission and Penn National Gaming, which owns the track.

“It wasn’t the commission or the racetrack or anyone with any responsibility for horses and riders who took action,” said George Strawbridge, a prominent breeder and owner. “It was the jockeys who feared for their life. That’s not a shame. That’s a disgrace.”

Track officials and regulators had ample reason to question the integrity of Mr. Gill’s operation well before the boycott.

Regulators did not have the authority to monitor the treatment of horses on Mr. Gill’s ranch, but three months before the boycott, the commission and track security officers searched a van delivering Mr. Gill’s Lion’s Pride, who was scheduled to race that day. They found four syringes, and Lion’s Pride tested positive for a corticosteroid used to treat joint inflammation.

Lion’s Pride was not allowed to race that night. But on Dec. 18, 2009, after running barely a quarter of a mile, he suffered a fatal breakdown.

By then, an employee of Mr. Gill’s ranch had already told state police investigators that horses were being injected with drugs on race day, which is illegal. Investigators later heard accounts of snake venom injections and other performance enhancing treatments on race day, according to records obtained by The Times.

Dr. Jerry Pack, a former veterinarian for the racing commission who now works for Penn National, told the police that he suspected Mr. Gill’s horses received an illegal performance enhancing substance. He also said trainers were using shock wave therapy, which can mask injury. “This is also dangerous to the welfare of the horse,” he told investigators.

Suspicions were heightened by the backgrounds of some employees of Mr. Gill, including two trainers, Cole Norman and Darrel Delahoussaye.

Mr. Norman had been fined or suspended 30 times in four states for drugging horses. The authorities had accused him three times of administering an illegal “milkshake” — a concoction of baking soda, sugar and electrolytes delivered through a tube down a horse’s throat to combat fatigue by breaking up lactic acid. Mr. Norman was also incarcerated for killing a driver in a head-on collision while under the influence of prescription painkillers.

In 1984, Mr. Delahoussaye lost his Louisiana training license after a conviction for check fraud, and Ohio later suspended him for possessing syringes and drugs and for using a makeshift electric cattle prod on a horse. Mr. Gill himself had once been suspended from racing after syringes and needles were found in his barn at a New Hampshire racetrack.

A grand jury in Dauphin County, Pa., investigated reports of horse doping and other corrupt acts. But Mr. Delahoussaye was the only one charged, with doping. A plea agreement kept him out of jail — and out of racing in Pennsylvania.

In the face of the boycott, the racing commission ejected Mr. Gill and his racing manager, Anthony Adamo, from Penn National. They filed a federal lawsuit, saying that they were expelled for no valid reason and without a hearing. A trial took place last week and a decision is expected soon.

Alan Pincus, a lawyer for the men, said that they have been unfairly tainted with “all kinds of innuendo and lies for over two years,” and that the testimony showed that their ejection “was not based on any culpable wrongdoing.”

Mr. Gill said that he rarely visited Elk Creek Ranch, his Pennsylvania training center, and that he never instructed anyone to break racing rules.

Chris McErlean, vice president of racing at Penn National, said the investigation of Mr. Gill and the enforcement of racing rules was the responsibility of the state racing commission, which declined repeated requests for an interview.

Since the jockey boycott, change has come slowly at Penn National. The track began doing pre-race inspections of horses — routine at most racetracks in North America — only last October.

The track’s owner has declined to seek accreditation or to contribute to a fund for jockey benefits.

In September, an injured filly had to wait more than an hour to be euthanized because Penn National had no licensed veterinarian on duty during morning training. The company said it was not the track’s responsibility, though it is a requirement of accreditation.

“There’s cost issues and there’s problems we have with the process,” Mr. McErlean said of accreditation. “They are making racetracks solely responsible, presenting it as a racetrack-only issue. They don’t accredit horsemen, or breeders.”

Bought and Sold

Aqueduct has never been the most glamorous track. The sound of pounding hooves is often drowned out by the roar of jets at nearby Kennedy International Airport. The bulk of its racing is conducted in the winter, when top owners move their horses to Florida to race.

Aqueduct is a neighborhood track for working-class horsemen, where low-level horses are bought and sold in claiming races, which account for nearly 70 percent of American racing.

In claiming races, horses are grouped by ability and price. In a $10,000 claiming race, for example, any horse can be “claimed” or bought for that price. The goal is to lure a group of evenly matched horses to attract bettors but also to ensure a level playing field. The deterrent to entering a high-caliber horse in a low-level claiming race is the risk of losing it for a pittance.

Aqueduct is a case study of how casinos have altered the economics of claiming races. Purses there have jumped by about $130,000 a day compared with the previous year. At the same time, crops of thoroughbreds nationwide have declined and, many experts say, so has their overall quality. The result, at Aqueduct and other casino tracks, is daily cards of low-level claiming races being run for higher purses and a spike in the claiming of horses by owners seeking a quick profit.

Among them was Bojan, a valuable commodity, but a disposable one, too.

Bojan possessed enough good looks and pedigree to fetch $107,000 at a yearling sale in Kentucky in 2008. Now it was April 6, 2012 — Good Friday — and just as Bojan was about to run in the first race at Aqueduct, a trainer named Juan Serey dropped a slip of paper into a box in the racing office, agreeing to pay $10,000 for him on behalf of an owner who employed him. But the horse would not be his until after the race.

Mr. Serey, who has been the leading trainer at Aqueduct, knew the horse had a fragile tendon and puffy ankles. It was why Bojan kept coming up for sale at the bottom of the claiming ladder, why he had changed hands twice in two months.

Even so, Bojan had continued to prove a sound investment. He had earned more than $19,000 for one owner and trainer, Linda Rice, in the span of 16 days, and his current co-owner and trainer, David Jacobson, had owned Bojan for a single race — a victory worth $17,400.

Mr. Serey decided to roll the dice.

“Everybody just wants a horse, and they want him now to race in 10 days,” he said. “I want a horse today and I don’t want it tomorrow. I’m a businessman.”

Turning for home, Bojan led the field and it looked like Mr. Serey had chosen well. Suddenly, however, the horse faltered and his jockey stood up in the saddle. They hobbled home, finishing fourth. Moments later Bojan was boarding a horse ambulance.

“They tried to roll him and win the race and get the money,” Mr. Serey said of Bojan’s owners.

Indeed, the owners walked away with the $1,150 fourth-place check.

Mr. Serey had no regrets. “You’ve got to take the good ones and the bad ones,” he said, adding, “If somebody takes my bad horses, it’s good.”

Since the casino opened at the end of October, Aqueduct has seen a sharp rise in the number of horses injured and killed. Horses have broken down or shown signs of injury at Aqueduct at a rate of 10.2 per thousand starts, or more than double the national rate of 5.0 per thousand starts for thoroughbred racing, according to a Times analysis.

Similar trends are evident at some tracks around the country. The five casino tracks in New Mexico have rates for thoroughbred breakdowns that are double the national average, with Ruidoso Downs and Zia Park topping the list with 12.5 and 12.1, respectively, per thousand starts.

Coleman Lloyd, the racing secretary at Evangeline Downs Racetrack and Casino in Louisiana, told the state racing commission that the only conclusion that can be drawn from Evangeline’s high fatality rate was it “runs more races and cheaper horses,” according to the minutes of an Aug. 30, 2010, meeting.

Joe Gorajec, executive director of the Indiana Horse Racing Commission, said his state capped the number of racing days at 75 and mandated that low-level claiming races make up only 30 percent of the program.

“If you had just what I would call obscene money on these lower-level horses, it would affect the judgment of those horsemen,” he said.

Beyond the numbers, veterinary records obtained by The Times on Aqueduct’s 30 horse deaths show in raw terms how pain medication is used in racing.

In the week leading to a $7,500 claiming race with a $40,000 purse in early March, Big Polk a Dot’s right front ankle was injected with powerful cortisone, his feed was laced with a potent anti-inflammatory and he was shot with a painkiller, records show.

One of his rivals, Almighty Silver, got his left and right lower hocks injected with a painkiller and his front ankles with synthetic joint fluid. He also got an injection to dilate his airway, records show.

Big Polk a Dot ran barely an eighth of a mile before his right front cannon bone snapped and he was euthanized. Almighty Silver managed to finish third, despite a fractured right front leg.

While his effort earned $4,000 for his owner, Almighty Silver was taken by ambulance to Aqueduct’s backside where he, too, was put out of his misery.

These horses got little protection from state regulators or the racetrack. Even as the death toll was rising, necropsies were not performed to determine if pre-existing injuries had contributed to the fatal breakdowns. Nor were toxicology exams conducted.

In March, days after Governor Cuomo announced he would appoint a task force to investigate the fatalities, New York Racing Association veterinarians became more aggressive in keeping unfit horses out of the starting gate, which Dr. Anthony Verderosa, its chief examining veterinarian, called “a coincidence.”

The State Racing and Wagering Board announced an emergency rule voiding a claim if a horse had to be euthanized on the track. Among the 30 dead horses, 7 had been claimed in the race in which they had broken down.

But in the ethic of horse traders — in which you are just as likely to sell a damaged horse as buy one — not everyone believed that prohibiting the claiming of dead horses was a good idea.

“This is a game,” Mr. Serey said, “and we have to know how to play.”

A Fight for a Horse

Horses have never been a game to Earle Mack. A real estate developer, philanthropist and former ambassador to Finland, Mr. Mack began breeding and racing thoroughbreds more than 50 years ago. He spent seven years in the 1980s as chairman of the New York State Racing Commission.

Over the past nine months, Mr. Mack has had a frustrating, front-row seat for how horses are treated in the casino era of horse racing. In 2008, he brought a beautifully bred horse from Argentina named Star Plus to the United States. Star Plus won one race and took second in another. Although minor injuries sidelined him in 2009, he won a race the following year. But on March 28, 2010, at Gulfstream Park, he suffered a career-ending ankle injury. The veterinarian recommended he never be ridden again.

Mr. Mack retired Star Plus to a farm in Florida. But last summer, Mr. Mack said he sold the horse for just $1,000, after the new owners agreed not to race him again.

Instead, the new owners, George Iacovacci and Kelly Spanabel, began training Star Plus. Records show that Mr. Iacovacci, an owner-trainer, and Ms. Spanabel, a jockey, eke out a living at casino racetracks, which often pay purse money through last place. Last year, for example, horses Mr. Iacovacci owned made more than $90,000, despite winning only five times.

When Mr. Mack found out Star Plus was training, he alerted racing officials and offered to buy him back. The couple refused. Last July, they ran Star Plus in Michigan and, in November, in two races at West Virginia’s Mountaineer Park. He finished last all three times.

On Jan. 9, after discovering Star Plus was entered to run two days later at Charles Town, Mr. Mack faxed a letter to the West Virginia Racing Commission.

“As you are undoubtedly aware,” he wrote, “with an impaired ankle this horse is a danger to himself, his rider and everyone on any track where he is allowed to work and race.” Darcy Scudera, who cares for Mr. Mack’s horses in Florida, also contacted West Virginia officials, but was told there was nothing they could do.

Three weeks later, Mr. Mack wrote to the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission, but he said he never heard back.

On Jan. 28, Star Plus was again outclassed by six other horses, clomping home 43 1/4 lengths behind. Even so, he earned his owners $1,000.

“This is clearly abuse, and anyone interested in animals should have stopped it,” Mr. Mack said. “But these tracks need full fields and have got to fill races. That’s why they pay $1,000 for last place.”

Last month, after the West Virginia attorney general’s office persuaded state racing officials to hear the case, Mr. Iacovacci and Ms. Spanabel sold the horse back to Mr. Mack for $7,000. Ms. Spanabel said that she and Mr. Iacovacci never agreed to retire Star Plus, and that they decided to sell the horse back when it became clear he was not going to be allowed to compete.

Star Plus is now retired in Kentucky.

“These horses have fought so hard for us and given us so many great thrills and happiness,” Mr. Mack said. “Don’t they deserve to be cared for? Don’t they deserve better than what we’re giving them?”

Source: The New York Times

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