At Belmont Park alone, 221 horses, like Excursionniste above, died from racing or training injuries, or other medical conditions, over five years. Credit: Little Blue Bird Stables

After veterinarians euthanized Excursionniste, a thoroughbred injured during the final race on Belmont Stakes day last year, his trainer, Mark Hennig, attempted to explain the death. “Very unfortunate step,” Hennig wrote.

But there is no such thing, as the state's equine medical director has made clear. And that shows just how far horse racing has to go to protect the majestic animals at the heart of the industry.

Belmont Park is one of Long Island's jewels, home for more than a century of history and triumph. It also has been the scene of tragedy and loss. A yearlong investigation by Newsday's Jim Baumbach detailed the injuries and deaths experienced by too many horses on and off the racetrack. State records showed that at Belmont Park alone, 221 horses died from racing or training injuries, or other medical conditions, over a five-year span. Year after year, thoroughbreds have died at higher rates at Belmont than the national average.

Belmont is undergoing a massive remake that will transform the grandstand, tracks, and property. The work won't be completed until 2026. Until then, Belmont's racing has moved to Aqueduct and Saratoga race courses. The wait for a new Belmont Park represents an opportunity for the horse racing community to put horse safety first and change the tragic trajectory of the past.

That starts with the track itself. Upon its reopening, Belmont will boast a new synthetic track that is, by most accounts, far safer for horses. It's being built so Belmont can host year-round racing, including during winter and bad weather, but horse racing officials should consider its wider potential. Even as some remain stuck in the lore of dirt tracks, there's a chance for those at the forefront of change to prioritize equine safety in new ways.

Also important: an emphasis on new technologies, including those that can track a horse's health during training and racing. For now, some technology, particularly that worn by horses, is optional. As it's perfected and benefits become clear, NYRA should require it.

State and federal officials have a greater role to play, too, to improve oversight, generate additional data, track successes and failures, and develop better solutions. That requires a more honest analysis, more detailed and accurate reporting, and even stronger regulations.

As long as the state and region embrace horse racing, we have an obligation to make the sport as safe as it can be. That means continually improving the culture around it, acknowledging its dangerous realities, and doing everything possible to combat them — at Belmont and beyond.

This year, thankfully, none of the Triple Crown racetracks had fatalities on race days — a vast improvement upon last year, when each did. So far this year, no horses have died at Saratoga Race Course, though 14 have died at Belmont. With each step forward, there's one backward, too. We have much further to go.

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this editorial gave an incomplete accounting of where Belmont's racing has moved.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.


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