New NYRA Rules Completely Eliminate Injuries in Racing

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Derek Simon

January 17th, 2015

WARNING: This article will probably make some people mad. If you are one of them, I only ask that you consider the facts presented before you question my heritage and/or make suggestions as to what I can do with my opinions — many of which, I suspect, will be physically impossible.

I had fully planned on writing about handicapping today… and then I saw the following headline on “NYRA Announces New Safety Protocols.”

Like an idiot (I knew the article was going to challenge my patience, not to mention my digestive system), I clicked the link.

Sure enough, after just a few minutes of reading, I felt nauseous.

It seems that the New York Racing Association, in consultation with the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (NYTHA) and the Roman god Koalemos (just a guess), have figured out a way to eliminate injuries in racing and make the Sport of Kings safer than penning political cartoons.

“The safety of our equine athletes and jockeys at Aqueduct Racetrack is a high priority,” said Christopher Kay, Chief Executive Officer and President of NYRA, in a statement announcing NYRA’s new safety rules.  “In that spirit, the New York Racing Association continues to work together with the NYTHA leadership and the New York State Gaming Commission in these important endeavors.”

Among the new rules is a “poor performance” list, which will note horses that raced at Aqueduct and lost by 25 lengths or more (previously, these horses had simply been referred to as Andy Serling’s picks — I jest, I jest).

Once on this list, a horse must prove it is ready to race again by completing a half-mile workout in 53 seconds or less, which is akin to asking “Johnny Football” to show he’s serious about an NFL career by limiting his partying to seven days a week.

And how about this gem: “Effective Thursday, January 22, the bottom level for maiden claimers will be raised from maiden $12,500 to maiden $16,000.”

That’s right, get those cheap horses off the racetrack by raising the minimum claiming price. I’m sure I speak for most horseplayers when I say that the difference between a $12,500 NY-bred maiden claimer and a $16,000 NY-bred maiden claimer is like the difference between the various Rob Lowe’s in those DirecTV ads… to a blind person.

Then there’s my favorite rule change of all: “Effective for entries beginning with the race card for Thursday, January 22, and until further notice, entries will no longer be accepted at Aqueduct on any horse that has participated in a recognized race within 14 days of that start. Horses will be permitted to start on the 15th day following said race.”

Well, of course. It was only a matter of time before racing officials — undoubtedly in consultation with horse racing bloggers and other industry experts on Twitter and Facebook — told trainers how to handle the animals in their care. After all, many of them have been racing fans since Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra (that’s a long time, in horse years).

Look, I get the counter argument: Given the serious issues in the game, somebody needs to speak for the horses. And if folks in the industry won’t clean up their act, then we, the fans and bettors, will do it for them. Unfortunately, as is so often the case in our we’ve-got-to-do-something-about-this-right-now society, the issues in racing that we all care about are not, in fact, being addressed by these new rules.

NYRA’s actions were, in large part, the result of You Take the Cake becoming the 12th equine fatality in just 22 days of racing at Aqueduct this winter. Yet, according to the New York State Gaming Commission Web site, which Racing and Wagering Board Chairman John D. Sabini promised would leave “no stone unturned regarding incidents at tracks in New York” when it was launched in 2009, there have only been six thoroughbred fatalities at NYRA tracks in 2015.

 By my count, twelve minus six equals six “unturned stones.”

Worse, of the six fatalities that are listed in the NYS Gaming Commission database, two — a full one-third — were training accidents. Yet, the new NYRA rules call for more training, not less.

Still, I wanted to give NYRA the benefit of the doubt, so I withheld judgment until I ran the numbers on my own database, consisting of over 14,000 races and 113,000 horses from tracks across the fruited plain.

Like NYRA, I defined a “poor performance” as a race in which the horse in question was beaten by 25 lengths or more. I also added a “potential injury” category, which highlighted horses beaten by 99 lengths or more in a particular race (as such a margin typically means the horse was eased or broke down).

The results were, well, predictable…

Click HERE to better view the chart above.

Notice that, while horses coming off of “poor performances” were, in fact, at greater risk of finishing poorly again (20.7 percent) or possibly injuring themselves  (1.98 percent), the requirement of a subsequent four-furlong workout in 53 seconds or less did almost nothing to change those dreary digits, reducing only the potential injury rate by a miniscule 0.04 percent.

And take a look at the numbers on horses returning to the races in 14 days or less vs. 15 days or more — pretty unimpressive, huh? As I showed in a previous piece (Regular Racing: Is It a Bad Thing?), the dire effects of returning to the races quickly are vastly overstated, but, hey, why let facts get in the way of what sounds like a reasonable narrative?

Maybe if we insisted that horses take exactly 30 days off between starts, show a four-furlong workout of 53 seconds or less and have a “z” in their name, we’ll eliminate even more injuries.

At least we’ll be doing something.