Killing N.Y.’s horses for an extra buck

Lawrence Cunningham in Daily News, October 25, 2012

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Article written by Professor Lawrence Cunningham.

With the appointment of Cornell President David Skorton to head a new board that is intended to steer the troubled New York Racing Association into calmer waters, Gov. Cuomo has a chance to reform the shameful manner in which racehorses are treated right here in New York City.

The deaths of 21 racehorses at the Aqueduct Racetrack in South Ozone Park, Queens, last season is an inhumane atrocity. Bad management and disempowered veterinarians are to blame, according to a new report issued by a task force formed at Cuomo’s behest.

In May, the state seized control of the track from NYRA — and the governor is rightly promising radical changes. But Skorton has his work cut out for him.

He should not ignore an important culprit: The track’s new gambling profits fueled these senseless deaths. Last year, the race track became a “racino” — a race track with a casino inside. At the Resorts World Casino, operated by Malaysian gambling giant Genting, bettors play the slots on video and wager in video games such as poker and roulette. Stakes are high, with casino profits reaching into the hundreds of millions.

The racino channels 6.5% of those profits to purses — winnings awarded to horse owners and trainers — which added up to $14.8 million during the 2011-12 racing season. Purses for certain types of races rose to multiples of what the horses were worth on the market. These included “claiming races” for less competitive horses, where all entered horses can be bought (i.e., “claimed”) for a given price.

For example, horses that could be claimed for as little as $7,500 were run in races where the purse had been inflated, thanks to incoming gambling funds, to be as high as $30,000 and $40,000. That radically devalued the horses: Those that win but die from running too hard are worth vastly more than those that live but lose. Consequently, horses are run harder than they should be, causing broken legs that lead to death.

Of the 21 horses killed last season, 17 were running in claiming races. The recent task force report concluded that “inadequate protection was afforded to this class of horse.”

The purse-to-claim multiple should never approach 2 to 1, the report said. The actual multiples — more than 5 to 1 — contributed to an attitude of anything-for-victory that now requires reform.