by Mike Kane

From the outbreak of catastrophic injuries at Aqueduct to the Steve Asmussen/PETA investigation, to adding Cobalt to the substances subject to penalties in out-of-competition tests, high-profile Thoroughbred racing matters dominated Monday’s meeting of the New York State Gaming Commission.

With the massive winter storm moving up the East Coast already dropping snow on New York City, the commission moved smartly through a 30-minute meeting in Brooklyn with topics that included:

Acting Executive Director Robert Williams detailed the commission’s response to the series of accidents and injuries that have led to 14 racing-related equine fatalities since the start of the inner-track season at Aqueduct. Williams said that the commission’s staff was investigating every equine death at the track and that the reports were being reviewed by Dr. Scott Palmer, New York’s Equine Medical Director. New protocols have been put in place, Palmer has changed from monthly to weekly the meetings of the Equine Safety Review Board, a working group with the New York Racing Association, and pathology reports are being expedited to help identify a reason for the deaths.

Palmer announced that the commission has wrapped up its investigation into allegations of the mistreatment of horses against trainer Steve Asmussen by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), but did not say when its report would be completed and made public. Palmer noted that PETA had turned over nearly eight hours of video and its lengthy undercover report on Asmussen. When the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission said earlier this month that it could not find evidence to support penalties against Asmussen, it complained in its report that PETA had not complied with requests to turn over the document and all of its video.

Members of the commission unanimously passed an amendment to the Thoroughbred out-of-competition testing rule that Williams said “adds several new blood- and gene-doping agents, including Cobalt. The proposal prohibits all substances that are capable of abnormally enhancing the oxygenation of body tissues. This is of particular import to safeguard the health of horses and protect the integrity of racing.”

New York joins Indiana as states with tests and penalties for Cobalt positives.

Commission spokesman Lee Park said that New York has been testing Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds for Cobalt for some time. The Standardbred rule was approved in August 2014 and Monday’s vote brings Thoroughbreds into conformity with the Standardbred rule.

During the meeting, Chairman Mark Gearan said the commission is making progress in its quest to speed up the hearing process for people cited for rules violations and to make it more difficult to use appeals and adjournments as tools to postpone license suspensions to convenient times.

Williams spoke at length about the New York Racing Association’s breakdown crisis at Aqueduct.

“The frequency of occurrences is alarming, causing all racing participants to reflect back to 2011-2012 when NYRA faced a similar rash of catastrophic injuries,” he said. “The 2011-2012 incidents, of course, led to the establishment of the Task Force on Equine Health and Safety. The rate of fatalities at this present Aqueduct meet actually exceed the rate during those years.

“Staff is greatly concerned with the number of incidents and is thoroughly investigating the circumstances of each fatality so that the commission can best address the situation. Understanding the causal root of the breakdowns is primary to measure an appropriate reaction. To that end, State Equine Medical Director Dr. Scott Palmer has been coordinating a comprehensive review of each equine fatality, whether occurring during racing or during training.

“These reviews include necropsy reports, which didn’t exist prior to 2012, in an effort to identify the cause of injury and help identify factors that might have led to such occurrence. Dr. Palmer has also mandated that any horse that dies on the grounds of Aqueduct, whether racing or not, be sent to Cornell for necropsy.”

Previously, necropsies were mandatory only for horses injured in races or in training.

Williams noted that, while not all the deaths were the result of limb fractures, there were many unexplained injuries. “Research regarding factor identification continues,” he said. “The Office of Veterinary Affairs has undertaken a matched case controlled study seeking to identify high-risk horses before they race. Statistical analysis is underway and a consultation will be made with a Cornell University epidemiologist.”

Williams said that results from the ESRB analysis will be reviewed and summarized on a regular basis to help make policy recommendations to the commission and NYRA.

“Since the initial meeting of the Gaming Commission, we have stressed our role as ensuring equine health and safety as a primary concern,” he said. “There should be no doubt that our concerns remain primary.”

In his report to the commission, Palmer gave an update on the investigation into PETA’s claims that Asmussen and his staff mistreated horses and committed multiple rules violations in 2013. He said that in March 2014 PETA turned over nearly eight hours of video and approximately 285 pages of written notes from its undercover investigation. The Gaming Commission looked into the PETA accusations because Asmussen’s horses were stabled at Saratoga during the the time that the alleged abuses took place.

“This investigation is now complete and the report is in the final stages of review, prior to presentation to the commissioners,” he said.