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Submitted by Noel Michaels on Friday, February 1, 2013 at 12:00 AM

Safety a disingenuous reason for NYRA date reduction

There were plenty of good reasons for Aqueduct to cut back to a four-day racing week for the rest of the winter – just not the one that the New York Racing Association cited when it announced the reduction Thursday and which is now being widely reported as its reason for doing so.

The three-sentence press release issued by the NYRA on Thursday said that eliminating five Wednesday and one Thursday card over the next five weeks “was one of several equine safety initiatives approved by the NYRA board at its most recent meeting.”

So “Safety Cited as Races Dropped at Aqueduct” was the headline in The New York Times the next day. The Daily News went with “Aqueduct gets NYRA OK to Reduce Schedule after Mysterious Horse Deaths” over an article that began “The New York Racing Association took a step Thursday it hopes will reduce the number of horse fatalities this winter – reduce the number of racing days.”

The takeover of New York racing by a state-controlled New York Racing Reorganization Board last December has been focussed on improving equine safety, and a raft of new protocols has been introduced in an effort to minimize risks. It is a commendable priority, but one that should not be invoked in self-congratulatory fashion every time an operational change is made.

To claim that eliminating some race programs is a safety initiative is disingenuous and sends a completely false message about the sport in general and Aqueduct in particular – that it is inherently and unacceptably unsafe and that the only way to reduce risk is to have less racing.

This is entirely at odds with what the state’s own panels and task forces have found – that a spike in accidents and fatalities last winter had nothing to do with the safety of the Aqueduct inner track or the number of races being run over it. Fewer races means fewer opportunities for accidents and a greater opportunity for the state to proclaim that it has made racing “safer.”

This is not, however, why Aqueduct is running fewer dates. Nearly every other track in the country has cut back from five days a week to four, or four to three, because of an ongoing national horse shortage amid declining foal crops. An additional factor in New York this winter has been the institution of new regulations extending the cutoff time before a race that certain drugs can be administered, particularly the bronchodilator clenbuterol. As a result, ship-ins from neighboring states with looser rules have declined by 75 percent this winter, reducing the average field size from 7.9 a year ago to 6.9 now.

This has left the racing office scrambling to fill races and resulted in a weaker, less appealing product. For that reason alone, cutting back to four days a week made perfect sense, and it had nothing to do with safety or mysterious horse deaths.

The progress being made here is not in the field of equine welfare but in streamlined government response. In the past when NYRA wanted to reduce its racing schedule, it had to go through a lengthy process of hearings and applications and was opposed by state regulators and local politicians who somewhat fancifully claimed it would have negative economic impact on the surrounding community. Now that the NYRA is temporarily being run by the state, it took only six days for its resolution at a board meeting to be formally approved by the state Racing and Wagering Board.

The other danger of mischaracterizing the reason for the change is that it will encourage the movement, which has some support among the newer members of the NYRA board, to get rid of winter racing at Aqueduct altogether. They wish that every day of racing in New York could be like a Saturday at Saratoga, but that is an impractical fantasy. By definition, only the top sliver of the horse population can race at the game’s highest level, and there have to be seasons and venues for those of lesser quality to race.

This is not only a fact of the sport but also its economic foundation: the betting handle and the purses paid out on run-of-the-mill races support the higher-end events. Despite its lack of appeal to some well-heeled horse owners, off-peak racing remains popular with the customers: Last February, Aqueduct racing accounted for just 5 percent of the races run across the country, but attracted 30 percent of the national betting handle for the month.

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