Phoenix-based Turf Paradise, Arizona’s largest horseracing track, has one of the longest racing seasons in the nation. It also provides opportunities for horses just starting their racing careers. That combination creates challenges for the track which is why Turf Paradise has one of the most aggressive safety protocols in the nation in addition to innovative techniques to prevent injuries.
However a recent uptick in track injuries has prompted Turf Paradise to call for new reforms to reduce equine deaths. It may be particularly important as another track, Arizona Downs in Yavapai County, gets set to restart operations this spring after an eight year hiatus. The uptick follows a period in which Turf Paradise’s injuries and fatalities were at or near the national average.
Turf Paradise races 131 live days – one of the longest race meets in the country. To date, from opening day October 13, 2018 there have been about 500 races in which nearly 4,000 horses have competed. This year there have been 14 horse fatalities. None of the fatalities happened on the turf (grass) track. Last year during the entire meet of more than 8300 starts, there were 27 equine deaths.
Turf Paradise takes these deaths very seriously and is proposing a series of reforms.
More Pre-Race Inspections
Currently there are only 15 pre-race exams of horses which are selected by the stewards on a live racing day. The exams are conducted by a veterinarian employed by Turf Paradise
Turf Paradise feels there should be inspections for all horses racing on a given day conducted by a veterinarian employed by the State of Arizona. This is a common practice in other states. The addition of a state employed veterinarian would provide the resources to expand pre-race inspections. It would also safeguard objectivity in the process.
Vets from Midwestern University are currently used to perform post death exams (necropsy) which occur at the track. This resource can and should be used to enhance safety.
New Commission To Study Horse Deaths
To be clear, a special committee working with the ADOR has been studying the issue for two years. Their efforts have been diligent and ethical. These are people dedicated to horse safety. However a fresh set of eyes may be in order that includes people from outside the industry. This commission could include a statistician to look for trends not apparent to those involved in horseracing, and veterinary experts culled from ASU, the U of A, NAU and Midwestern University. Instructors from the University of Arizona Racetrack Industry Program may be able to assist as well. The commission should also consist of veteran horse trainers, jockeys as well as representatives from Turf Paradise, Arizona Downs, and Rillito Park.
Elimination of Flat Track Motorcycle Racing
Although there has been no clear connection between flat track motorcycle racing which takes place after the meet and the increase in horse deaths, in an abundance of caution the track will suspend hosting the event. The event does not appear to cause any residual damage to the track and it should be noted that the dirt around the track is completely replaced AFTER the motorcycle races. However the equine death rate first increased in the meet immediately following the first flat track race at Turf.
Safety First And Foremost
Horse safety is and always has been a priority for Turf Paradise. As recently as the 2015/2016 season the fatality rate was within industry norms. What is so puzzling to Turf Paradise is why that rate spiked to double the industry standard. Turf Paradise has some of the strictest drug testing polices in the nation which were recently enacted at the urging of General Manager Vince Francia. When the equine herpes virus starting impacting tracks nationwide, Turf Paradise and Francia took aggressive measures and successfully prevented a widespread outbreak at Turf.
The primary responsibility and number one priority is safety at the racetrack. This responsibility is shared by three partners. Turf Paradise’s responsibility is to safely maintain the main track, turf course, and stable area for the horses and horsemen (the owners and trainers of the race horses). The horsemen’s responsibility is to send healthy horses to the racetrack to race. The third partner, the jockeys, bears the responsibility to be healthy in mind and body in order to safely control the horses when they race. All three groups share safety as their number one responsibility and priority.
The proposed reforms are IN ADDITION to the measures below that Turf Paradise has already taken. The track currently spends considerable sums of money and undertakes numerous projects to improve horse safety.
Equine Therapy Swimming Pool
Turf Paradise is one of four of the 82 race tracks in the country that provides an Equine Therapy Swimming Pool. The pool, which is located in the stable area for the convenience of the horsemen, provides a complete cardio vascular workout for the horse without subjecting it to the stress on to its legs associated with regular training and workouts. The pool has three staff members to guide the horses through their swimming exercises. The pool averages 50 horses swimming per day.
For the 2018-2019 racing season, the track purchased two brand new harrows: each one 18 feet wide x 7 feet long. The harrows look like giant combs and groom the one mile main dirt track, keeping the surface even, level and at required depth of three inches for safe racing for the horses. The Turf Course (grass track) has separate protocols which are followed to determine if the surface is race-able or not.
Keeping Safety On Track
Track maintenance has one goal: safety of the racing surface for the horses and riders. Maintaining the dirt track is a science that balances soil content (the relationship of clay to sand and dirt). This mix of clay, dirt and sand is measured on a timely basis to monitor that balance. Also, the main track undergoes weekly renovation every Thursday during the race meet. At the conclusion of the race meet, the sand and dirt are removed from the main track. At the start of the new meet, fresh sand and dirt are used. The dirt and sand mix is trucked in from western Arizona. The process costs more than $100,000. In this instance dirt is not dirt cheap, nor should it be.
The Turf Course is maintained via an automated watering system, periodic re-seedings, fertilization and aeration. The moisture content of the Turf Course is measured by a Cleg Hammer, which determines the status of the grass course, i.e., Firm, Soft, Yielding, etc. Depending on the reading of the Cleg Hammer, a recommendation is made on whether to race the grass course or not. At the end of the season old grass is removed and taken down to the earth base. Then re-seeding with Bermuda grass take place along with fertilization and aeration. In winter, the Turf Course is over-seeded with Winter Rye.
In the event of rain or any unusual circumstances, the dirt and turf tracks are inspected by Turf Paradise’s General Manager, a member of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, and the two jockeys who head up the Jockey’s Guild in Arizona. One or both tracks would close for the day if any of the parties, especially the jockeys, feel conditions are not right for racing.
Safety Review Committee
The Safety Review Committee meets once a month and is composed of the General Managers of Turf Paradise, Rillito Park (Tucson) and Arizona Downs (Prescott Valley), the Director of the Division of Racing, the Enforcement Officer of the Division, a representative of the Arizona Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (AzHBPA), and three veterinarians: The Division’s Safety Vet, the Division’s Track Vet and Turf Paradise’s Vet. The Committee maintains detailed data of any fatality at the race track, including fatalities suffered from illness, i.e., colic, and fatal injuries suffered during training and racing. The information is evaluated by the Committee and recommendations are made. In addition to meeting once a month, the Committee meets at the end of the racing season to review all fatalities and make recommendations.
Trainers’ Necropsy Review Committee
For each horse that suffers a fatal breakdown whether during morning workouts or racing, a necropsy is performed by Midwestern University College of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Health Institute. The four-page necropsy report is detailed and graphic, providing information on the actual cause of the fatal injury as well as the overall health of the horse. This report is given to the Fatal Injury Review Committee: Turf’s General Manager, a representative of the AZHBPA, the Enforcement Officer of the Division, the State Safety Vet, State Track Vet and Turf’s Vet. The Committee meets as needed, meaning after it receives the necropsy report, the Committee meets with the trainer of the horse to go over the report, to question the trainer on practices he/she employs for training, feeding routine etc.
Turf Paradise General Manager Vince Francia said, “Like any sport, horseracing has its risks. Speaking as someone who has been at Turf Paradise for 30 years, this track puts safety first and foremost. We have done a great deal but we need to do more. We have made it our top priority to find out why there has been an increase in equine deaths and we are 100% committed to taking the necessary steps to prevent these deaths.”