Perhaps by now you've read through the task force report on the Big A breakdowns that was released last Friday....here's a link to the large PDF file if you're interested. I highly recommend it - at least the first 99 pages or so, before the Appendix. It serves not only as a meticulous, fair-minded investigation of what transpired and why the task force believed that 11 of the 21 deaths (or "more than half," in the more sensationalized world of the New York Times) that were probed might have been prevented. It also serves as a primer on the common factors found in catastrophic equine injuries and, especially, on the medications that horsemen use to try and keep their horses earning money on the track. And also as a disturbing portrayal of a disorganized and inexperienced NYRA veterinary staff that sounds dysfunctional enough to work in the state capitol.
The report goes out of its way to distance itself from the incendiary language we've heard from the Cuomo Administration and by the Times. It notes the "intense scrutiny...on the use of medications and drugs;" and that it was "mindful of the numerous suggestions that illicit drugs or inappropriate medication must have have been a contributing factor." It even rebukes the Times directly, both in the report and, as reported by Steve Crist, in the Q and A afterwards; disputing the notion that prescription NSAIDs qualify as "powerful painkillers," a catch phrase use frequently for effect by the Paper of Record in its series of articles. And it appealed for calm and objectivity.
However, the Task Force does not intend for this Report to be used to find fault, assign blame, or otherwise result in disciplinary action for events that have occurred. This Report is intended to be a constructive analysis, identifying actions with the potential to prevent or mitigate injury to horses and riders, and our overall conclusions regarding the fatally injured horses as a group sets the stage for our recommendations.That didn't stop the Times from planting their story on the front page with the headline Inquiry Faults Racing Officials in Horse Fatalities at Aqueduct. Of course, the Times didn't actually read the report before reporting on it. Instead, probably so that it could place the story on Friday rather than the less-widely read Saturday paper, based its story, prior to its release, on accounts by "people with direct knowledge of the investigation’s report." Instead, you could go with people like the Form's Matt Hegarty or Tom LaMarra of Bloodhorse who actually based their stories on the report itself and the press event at which it was released. LaMarra's story was more accurately titled: Report: Deficiencies Had Role in Horse Deaths. Yes, the hierarchy at NYRA, specifically with respect to the veterinary department, is indeed flawed, so blame that on "racing officials" if you will. But trainers, owners, jockeys, the Racing and Wagering Board, and the drug culture ingrained in the sport in this country all share responsibility.
As far as I can see, the Times did not even follow up with a story on the actual report the next day; please correct me if I missed it. I find that a little weird. At least perhaps, if Joe Drape wasn't busy on Friday taking a victory lap on Twitter, he might have corrected some mis-characterizations that the story made. Or, then again, probably not.
The Times article reports:
The investigation found that veterinarians and officials of the New York Racing Association often cared more about filling races that generate revenue for trainers, owners and the racetracks than about whether horses were fit to compete.The report in fact stated no such conclusion. It reported on what it termed a "critical conflict of interest" in that the veterinary department was reporting to a racing secretary's office whose job is to fill the races to the brim. "The racetrack-employed veterinarian's advocacy for the horse can become conditional and based upon the needs of the employer, rather than the needs of the horse." Obviously, the potential for the kind of behavior the Times reported as fact is present. But the report alludes only to some unspecified instances of scratch recommendations being overturned by the Racing Office. It's an unacceptable, if not libelous, stretch in my view to make the inference that the Times does.
Additionally, the Times writes of "numerous instances of corticosteroids being injected in horses in the days leading to their fatal races." That is true only if you consider four out of 21 to be considered as "numerous." And, while we're at it, why hasn't the Times ever reported, as noted in the report, that 7,106 drug tests taken during the winter meeting resulted in not a single positive for an illegal or performance enhancing substance (or at least what the task force considers as such)? And only five overages of permitted medications, none in the injured animals? I'm sure those are statistics they could have come up with (and perhaps knew), if they wanted to present a fair and balanced report instead of trying to portray a hypodermic free-for-all.
Having said that though, the report paints a picture of rampant and, under current regulations, legal use of various medications that are endemic in the sport, not only at NYRA tracks, but nationwide. 18 of the 21 horses investigated were administered medication of some kind in the 48 hours prior to their final race. And it was made clear that the fatally injured group was medicated no more or no less than the rest of the population. Should the recommendations on reducing such medication becomes the law in New York and elsewhere, the 21 horses shall not have died in vain.
This report presents the facts merely as the facts. It speculates infrequently and with caution when it does. The section which explains, in exhaustive detail, the circumstances leading up to each of the fatalities, is a disturbing account of young horses pushed to their limit even, in two cases, when its jockey (like most of the subjects, unnamed) knew that something seemed terribly wrong. Facts, on their own and unembellished, can be powerful things. I found this section to be more poignant than the amplified hyperbole used by the Times to create a desired impression rather than to report on the news. In fact, parts of the report outdid the Times even on strictly a reporting basis; I don't recall the paper reporting on the conflict of interest between the vets and the racing office that is one of the key points made by the task force, even in its recent article on the vets' own financial conflicts. Maybe they would have gotten to that if they weren't busy wasting our time on quarter horses in New Mexico.