The Maryland Racing Commission took an important step this week agreeing to join other Eastern states in a set of regulations for the amounts and kinds of medications that can be used at the track. But there is still more that needs to be done to ensure the safety of Maryland's horses and the jockeys who ride them.
Maryland's racing season began this year with a shocking string of horse deaths at Laurel Park, which has generally been viewed as one of the safer tracks in the Mid-Atlantic. Ten horses were euthanized after breaking down during the first six weeks of racing at Laurel this year — as many as died statewide in all of 2011. Another five would be euthanized by the time of the Preakness Stakes in May.
A racing commission safety committee issued a report on the matter in March that found no single factor to explain the breakdowns — the horses were trained by different people and were of varying ages. Nor did the commission find fault with the medication they had been given.
But the report came at a time of heightened scrutiny of horse racing industry practices and questions about whether the increased use of medications to help horses perform was enabling them to run through pain and leading to fatal injuries. The rise in deaths here mirrored a trend nationwide, leading to concerns that racing, an industry that is already suffering from an aging fan base and declining interest, might come to be viewed as barbaric and archaic.
Maryland's decision to join with seven other states in setting uniform limits on medication use represents an unprecedented degree of cooperation in a sport that has historically remained strikingly independent from state to state. But it is a recognition that the conditions in the industry have fundamentally changed. The spread of slot machine gambling throughout the region, and the decision by most Mid-Atlantic states to dedicate some slots revenue to supporting the horse racing industry, has fundamentally changed the sport's economics. There is now an imbalance between the artificially large purses that slots have made possible and the supply of quality racehorses. That provides an incentive for owners and trainers, whether consciously or not, to take risks that they otherwise might not.
The new medication regulations mean that no drugs may be administered to horses within 24 hours of a race except the anti-bleeding medication Lasix, and only then by a third-party veterinarian who reports to the racing commission. That prevents an unscrupulous person from administering other drugs under the guise of giving a medication that helps control the bleeding that can occur in horses' lungs during races. In addition, Maryland has now banned "adjunct" anti-bleeding medications — effectively home remedies concocted by trainers for which there is no medical evidence. Maryland had been one of the last three states in the nation where such medications had been allowed.
The next step is for the state to formally adopt reforms to claims races. Those are events in which anyone can put in a "claim" for a horse before a race for a set amount that varies based on the quality of the field. After the race, the claims are opened, and any claimed horses go to their new owners no matter what. This is another area in which the economics of post-slots racing have changed the dynamics in a way that can be dangerous for horses. Because purses have been inflated, horses at the lower tiers can run in races where the prize money is two to three times as much as their value. An unscrupulous owner could dump an injured horse into a claims race and hope for the prize money, knowing that if the animal breaks down, a claimant could be stuck with it.
This summer, the commission gave preliminary approval to rules modeled after reforms adopted in New York in the wake of a string of horse deaths there. They call for any claims to be voided if a horse dies or is euthanized on the track, and they give a claimant an hour after a race to back out under certain circumstances. The state ultimately may need to go farther, but these changes would be a good start.
In general, though, the industry seems to be headed in the right direction, thanks in no small part to an increasingly activist racing commission under the leadership of Chairman Bruce Quade. During his tenure, the commission has not only tackled safety issues but has also helped broker a 10-year agreement between the tracks and horsemen on racing days, and more recently a deal between the horsemen and breeders that should encourage more horse breeding in Maryland. The advent of slots provides great opportunities for the racing industry but also some risks, and it's heartening that the racing commission appears to recognize both.