Laurel Park thoroughbred deaths prompt state inquiry

Ten horses were injured and euthanized at Laurel Park over nearly six weeks this year, prompting the state to investigate why the rate of deaths at the racetrack had spiked so drastically and suddenly.

But the deaths remain a mystery, a concern for horse racing fans and those in the industry.

On Monday, a report on the state investigation did not identify a cause for the rise in deaths. Instead, the Maryland Racing Commission suggested in its report a tightening of current safety protocols and increased study of fallen horses.

Since the time period studied by the commission, more horses have been injured at Laurel — three horses are listed in racing charts as having broken down on Friday and Saturday of last week alone. It was unclear as of Monday night whether those horses were euthanized.

"Obviously, it's a situation we're all very concerned about," said Bruce Quade, chairman of the racing commission. "We're trying to be proactive in identifying the cause or causes, but at this point, there doesn't seem to be one single stand-alone factor. We're going to continue to review and re-emphasize the policies and procedures that are supposed to be followed."

Twenty-one horses were euthanized last year after suffering an injury at Maryland's thoroughbred tracks, Laurel and Pimlico, and 10 horses were euthanized after racing here in all of 2011.

The recent string of deaths is a blow to horse racing here. Maryland had built a reputation for running safe races, and the industry has been buoyed by purses fattened with slot-machine revenue and a 10-year deal between the tracks and horsemen that many said brought stability.

The report was written by the commission's Safety and Welfare Committee, which studied a span — Jan. 9 to Feb. 15 — that included 23 racing days out of 140 scheduled this year.

The committee did not find fault in drug regimens used on the horses and questioned by some industry critics but suggested the adoption of uniform medication guidelines currently under consideration in eight Mid-Atlantic states, including Maryland. That could be approved this month and is seen as a potential game-changer by those in the sport.

The committee, convened last year to address growing concerns about horse safety after The New York Times detailed a rash of horse deaths around the country, also plans to review all future incidents and have horses necropsied. Only one of the 10 bodies was studied, limiting the information available for the investigation.

The state commission's executive director, Mike Hopkins, has asked state-employed veterinarians to expand their pre-race examination of each horse to meet a model adopted by other jurisdictions and organizations.

"The state just needs to keep being proactive and figure out how to stop these," said Alan Foreman, a prominent Maryland-based lawyer who helped New York investigate a series of deaths last winter. He has since pushed for reforms across the sport. "It always takes something like this for people to wake up fully."

Some industry watchers said Maryland racing's recent success could lead to problems. The introduction of slots money has made racing more lucrative than it has been in years and has caused a surge in the number of horses being claimed.

That means low-level horses can enter races on the condition that they can be claimed for a certain price by another trainer or owner who submits a claim prior to the race. In some cases, critics say, owners and trainers are looking to make a quick profit by claiming a horse and running it without proper rest against inferior competition in another claiming race.

A majority of the races at Laurel — and at tracks around the country — feature "claiming."

Members of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association successfully lobbied at last month's racing commission meeting to adopt an emergency regulation to change claiming rules.

The new rules, which need to be approved by a General Assembly subcommittee, would prevent a claimed horse from "dropping" in class and running in a race worth less than its last race. It would also add a provision allowing a claimed horse who goes 180 days between starts to be exempt from claiming for one race.

Six of the horses who died at Laurel were running in $5,000 claiming races, the lowest rung of racing here.

"There needs to be incentive for an owner to claim a horse and then keep him for a little bit, feel like he's his own," said David Hayden, a longtime breeder in Maryland who serves on the racing commission's safety committee. "These horses running in the $5,000 races, you've got to protect them a bit."

Tom Chuckas, president of track owner the Maryland Jockey Club, said he will ask the commission to enact even tougher claiming rules. He'd like any claimed horse to be forced to run in a higher-level race, with a purse of at least 25 percent more, the next time out. Tim Keefe, who has trained at Laurel since 1993, also favors forcing claimed horses to move up in class, though he knows some trainers will be against it.

"The idea of claiming is that they found a horse they can make better," he said.

The safety committee's report dismissed the notion that the track surface caused any of the incidents. Trainers such as Mike Trombetta and Graham Motion, who train horses at Fair Hill in Elkton, in Florida and across the country, have said the track surface at Laurel is one of the best in the Mid-Atlantic.

Chuckas said his track maintenance crews have followed their usual schedule for keeping the track in shape. That includes 24-hour-a-day work on the track for most of the winter.

The report did not find the track culpable for the horse breakdowns but mentioned that one trainer thought the dirt might have been too deep. The injuries occurred at all parts of the track.

Keefe lost a filly, Crimson Gal, in the second race Jan. 11. She pulled up in the middle of the stretch with a leg fracture, and he hoped to save her. But X-rays at the New Bolton Center in Pennsylvania, where he'd taken her for surgery, showed it would "be more humane to let her go." A member of the horsemen's board, Keefe is troubled by the breakdowns but at a loss for an explanation.

"She was looking great, running great," he said. "This is sometimes part of it. The worst part. I wish there was an easy answer, but I don't see one."

Dickie Small grew up around the racetrack — his family has worked with horses since the beginning of the 1900s — and has trained in Maryland since 1971. He said this is one of the worst stretches for horse deaths that he can remember. He lost Alpha Mike Foxtrot, a promising 3-year-old, on Feb. 9 in the Miracle Wood Stakes, when the horse broke a leg coming down the stretch.

The race was won by Dynamic Strike, another of Small's horses and a training partner to Alpha Mike Foxtrot.

"In the circle, we had one horse getting the trophy and 100 yards away there was another getting put to sleep," he said. "One, I wanted to remember. The other, I wanted to forget as quickly as I could. He just ran too hard. They were both so good."

"But I don't know that there's an answer," Small added. "Hate to say it, but I think these things happen in groups sometimes. I wish there was a solution, but if there was one, I'd be the guy who was around long enough to have found it."

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