Haze caused by northern wildfires hangs over horses and their...

Haze caused by northern wildfires hangs over horses and their handlers ahead of the Belmont Stakes horse race, Thursday, June 8, 2023, at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y. Training was cancelled for the day due to poor air quality.  Credit: John Minchillo

Horse safety, rather than the actual races, has been a primary topic during this Triple Crown run. Having 12 horses die at Churchill Downs, home to the Kentucky Derby, in a month will bring that kind of scrutiny.

Less highlighted, of course, have been the steps already taken to protect the horses.

The Triple Crown series will conclude with Saturday’s running of the 155th Belmont Stakes, air quality permitting.

“The frustrating part is I think we’ve made a lot of changes and we’re still encountering some issues,” said trainer Todd Pletcher, who will saddle both 5-2 morning-line favorite Forte and 3-1 Tapit Trice as he seeks his fourth Belmont Stakes victory. “They were different kinds of horse deaths. They weren’t all racetrack breakdowns. The statistics have improved but they’re not good enough.”

The Belmont Stakes will be the first Triple Crown race run under Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA)’s new medication and anti-doping program, which went into effect on May 22. Federally-mandated HISA began overseeing the sport last year.

In response to the 12 deaths, Churchill Downs announced new safety guidelines last week in limiting horses to four starts during a rolling eight-week period and imposing ineligibility standards for continued poor performances. Yet it moved its meet to the smaller Ellis Park in Henderson, Kentucky as it reviewed its protocols.

Per New York Racing Association statistics, 99.83% of the 14,043 horses who ran in 2022 at either Belmont, Aqueduct or Saratoga competed safely and 99.95% of the 48,219 timed workouts at Belmont and Saratoga were completed safely.

Dr. Scott Palmer, the New York State Gaming Commission Equine Medical Director, said the fatality rate in the state was 1.5 per 1,000 starts (0.15%). Nationally, the Associated Press reported thoroughbred racing’s fatality rate was down 37.5% since 2009.

“We may never be perfect but we’re going to keep trying until we get there,” said Palmer, also an adjunct professor in population medicine and diagnostic sciences at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “At 0.15%, right now we’re not that far away from being zero. To me, it’s not an irrational goal.”

Palmer was part of the task force that investigated the deaths of 21 horses at Aqueduct in a four-month period during 2011-12. The findings shaped pro-active standards to keep at-risk horses from racing or training.

“Prior to that report, you’d ask a trainer what happened and the answer was, ‘The horse took a bad step,’” Palmer said. “What this task force taught us was we don’t have to accept a high fatality rate as the price of doing business in horse racing. The first year, fatalities were down 47%.”

Eventually, those guidelines spread to mid-Atlantic states and formed the basis for HISA’s standards.

New York has also begun a program of using biometric sensors during training to help predict at-risk horses.

One big change in the sport has been horses running fewer races with more recovery time. No horse ran in all three Triple Crown races this year.

The question becomes whether this represents enough forward progress.

Forte’s owner Mike Repole, who was raised in Queens, still worries about the future of the sport.

“It starts with the governing body and then working together with first the top tracks and setting the example backwards,” Repole said. “There’s so many priorities that it’s almost gotten to the point where if you don’t start addressing some of them, in five years you won’t have to address any of them. The sport might not be here.

“The first thing you have to start with is building a foundation where you can move the sport forward. That starts with a national commission. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association, I like what they’re doing. I think that’s a step in the right direction. But there also needs to be a governing body that works in sync because, right now, it’s down to states and it’s down to tracks making the decisions unilaterally.”

But trainer Brad Cox, who has 7-2 Angel of Empire, 10-1 Hit Show and 20-1 Tapit Shoes in the Belmont, said he believes the sport is moving the right direction in terms of national oversight.

“That’s where HISA has come into play,” Cox said. “They recommended the move to Ellis.”

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