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Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Task Force Report Brings A Welcome Breath of Objectivity

Perhaps by now you've read through the task force report on the Big A breakdowns that was released last'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.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Alan.

Anonymous said...

Has Jerry Bailey weighed in on the report and the Cuomo administration's reaction, etc.? It was easy to sense Scollay, Palmer and Foreman's professional bias during their presentations.

John D. said...

Bravo Alan. I told TG a while ago I didn't like Drape for many reason. Maybe now she can understand why. The NYT runs on agendas, not always news. They use the news to advance agendas. I've been reading that paper for over 50years and can tell by now when it's out to get someone.

Yes, Drape and New Mexico. He comes frm Oklahoma I beleive, so he probably went home while writing the stories. Too bad he didn't stay there.

Anonymous said...

Hey Alan, you do realize that all the talk about vets, vet department, NYRA vets, etc, has zero to do with vets that actually deal with sore horses, administer medications, inject joints, etc right?
I warned you a couple weeks ago right here the report was going to be useless, because the committee was set up to make it that way. Be careful of drinking KoolAid.

Actually, I won't call the "exhaustive report" useless, they got it about 40% right.

Anonymous said...

I'll be a bit more specific: Rick "Spurious Precision" Violette got exactly what he he wanted, No Changes To "Therapeutic Medication"!, other than a basic ban on Clenbuterol, which he would probably concede was indefensible at this point anyway.
What the hell does clenbuterol have to do with breakdowns anyways? And that was the signature change recommended to medication?

Figless said...

Now that I have read your blog and the other articles, but not the report, what concerns me is the enforcement of the new rules regarding medications. Unless there are tests that can adequately calculate withdrawal times of such long periods of these "medications", which I doubt, how in the world will these rules be enforced?

The honest trainers will no doubt abide by the rules as they have all along, and the cheaters will continue to cheat perhaps with more of an advantage. Unintended consequences.

Steve Zorn said...

Anon.: Rick and the rest of us in NYTHA have been way out ahead of the curve on this. We proposed clenbuterol and corticosteroid bans back last April, but NY State racing Board took no action..

Figless: Labs can test for withdrawal times on legal drugs, and do.

Report highlights the pervasive use of painkillers and quasi-steroids. As long as they're legal, it's crazy for a trainer not to use them. And because they're legal and everyone uses them, report found no correlation between use of drugs and breakdowns. Statistics 101 on that one. Still, report is a blueprint that I think most trainers at major tracks could live with. Might put the gypsies and Penn National-type guys out of business, though, which wouldn't be such a bad thing.

Anonymous said...

Figless, your concerns are justified but there is a precedent:
NYSRWB rules and pronouncements have been ignored, gotten around, and basically thoroughly trashed and abused for years and years.

Anonymous said...

Mr Zorm,

It is sad to hear that you promote, or understand, the pervasive use of drugs, legal or not, that are destroying the horses racing health and leading to the public's scorn of horse racing. Perhaps you should think this position through a bit? I know you come from a legal background, but loopholes are not necessarily a good thing.

Figless said...


Thanks for your response.

I am aware that labs test for withdrawal times, and do. My point is the further out the cutoff for administering a drug the less accurate that test will be, its just common sense.

If there is greater chance of error there is more room to challenge that test and therefore more room for cheating. The race day advantage gained will be less, of course, which is a good thing, but it will not eliminate cheating and may penalize those that abide by the rules more than the cheaters. Possible, I dont know, just raising the issue.

What we need is stricter ENFORCEMENT.

Test all you want, but without strict enforcement the tests, and increased withdrawal times, are useless.

If the penalty for murder is changed to one month home confinement, there are going to be a lot more murders. Politicians' continue to steal because they are never penalized. "Trainers" will continue to push the envelope as long as they are not punished. Accidents happen, but an intelligent racing commission can differentiate between and accident and repeated intentional violations.

There is no reason to give stalls to a trainer with repeated positives, for instance. While the fight continues in court, take away his stalls. Deny stalls to anyone suspected of cheating and you may see a change in behavior.

I realize they can ship in, but stalls are a valuable commodity and are not subject to legal challenge. If they continue to cheat while shipping in just deny their entries. Let them take legal action against you, but in the meantime deny their living. And consider punishing their owners as well. It can be done.

Since your board is comprised of mostly trainers, I understand the hesitancy. They probably view it as a slippery slope. The legit trainers need to stand up against the cheaters instead of simply complaining in private. Its time to rise up and make change. The opportunity is now.

I commend you and everyone who volunteer to serve on these boards, often times a thankless task. I encourage you to be even more forceful, if you are going to serve you may as well shake things up.

We have the Governor's ear right now, its now or never. Demand enforcement.

Anonymous said...

Seems to me, after perusing all the breakdowns on the NYSRWB site, and having completely read the "Report", that some observations should be made:
1) the report repeatedly points out that therapeutic medications prevent NYRA vets from preventing at risk horses from loading in the starting gate. The report then repeatedly claims that therapeutic medications do not put horses at risk. I find this really odd.
2)Several trainers names appear repeatedly on the database. Why? The report doesn't touch this aspect, because as they admit, they don't want to "point fingers"
3)Which private veterinarians service these trainers, and is there a correlation? We'll apparently never know.
4)there is a high probability from my experience that the veterinary treatment records have no correlation to what was treated in real time. Why? Because they do not have to reveal the true information. Why was this fact not highlighted? Ask Dr. Palmer.
5) If NY racing is the best in the US, why is it that the great majority of horses at Belmont, from which the majority of dead horses originated, are cared for by 2 private practices, employing 6 relatively inexperienced veterinarians with a cumulative 20 years of experience amongst themselves besides the 2 employers? What training do they get to prevent at risk horses from competing? None.
I don't want to point fingers either, but I wasn't tasked by the Governor to get to the bottom of it. There are a lot of stones unturned, and the committee, while doing an admirably good job, just scratched the surface IMVHO.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I left my last, and perhaps most important observation:
6) several of the trainers of record have NO, ZERO business holding a lisence to train horses to race on NYRA grounds. Standards should be upheld at some point.

Unknown said...

Opinions with names attached to them hold more weight in most peoples eyes.

Anonymous said...

You have been outspokenly pro-medication for a long time. That is your business if that's how you choose to identify yourself.
I choose not to, as I'm not looking for any gain anyway.
The fact remains however, that my opinions are stated, and if you want to dispute any of them, please feel free to do so.

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