With New York continuing to struggle with air quality concerns not seen in more than half a century from Canadian wildfires, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced new protocols Thursday for state racetracks that could force major changes to the Belmont Stakes.
If the Environmental Protection Agency's Air Quality Index, which measures particle pollution, ground-level ozone, and toxic gases in the air, exceeds 200, no racing or training can be conducted at the track, state officials said. That would include the postponement of the Belmont Stakes, she said, adding that a decision could come at the last minute, based on Saturday's air quality.
If the AQI is between 150 and 200, only horses that pass an additional pre-race respiratory veterinary examination will be permitted to race, with all others declared unfit and scratched without penalty, according to the new guidelines. A team that includes the New York Racing Association's chief veterinarian, stewards and presiding judges will collectively determine whether to allow racing.
When levels are under 150, officials are instructed to monitor horses for signs of respiratory inflammation and to contact the attending veterinarian if they show signs of distress.
The AQI in Elmont, home of the Belmont Racetrack, at 1 p.m. Thursday — 54 hours before the Belmont post-time — was 151, federal monitors show.
"People come from all over the country. It's huge for the local economy ," Hochul said of the Belmont Stakes Thursday. "And so, we hopefully can get this going, but there's no assurance of what the weather's going to be. So it's going to be a last-minute decision."
The NYRA canceled Thursday’s twilight racing program, which would have served as the kickoff for the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival.
“This guidance was arrived at in consultation with the New York Racing Association and is grounded in our shared efforts to provide the safest possible environment for training and racing thoroughbred horses throughout New York State," NYRA spokesman Patrick McKenna said. "NYRA will continue to closely monitor air quality in and around Belmont Park in the coming days, and we remain optimistic that conditions will allow for the resumption of training and racing on Friday.”
As in humans, particulates in the atmosphere can build up in respiratory systems of horses, causing serious health problems including irritation of the eyes and respiratory tract, state officials said. High concentrations of smoke and particulates can cause persistent cough, nasal discharge, wheezing, difficulty breathing and can potentially alter the immune system, experts said.