Saratoga Springs – Howard Beach was a 2-year-old chestnut colt who had a future. He raced once in his short life, nearly winning a six-furlong race on a rainy July 14 at Belmont Park. The young horse fought to the end of that race, holding the lead inside the eighth pole before getting passed in the final 70 yards. The people who handled him every morning at trainer Rick Violette’s barn were looking forward to the next time Howard Beach would run.
“He was a sweetheart,” Violette said, shaking his head while standing outside his office at his summer barn on the Saratoga backstretch.
Hopes and dreams for Howard Beach were shattered 15 days after his first race when, on a cloudy morning at Saratoga, the horse threw exercise rider Rodney Paine and ran loose on the main track. He would not survive a fracture to his right front leg. The colt with the future was euthanized.
The breakdown happened in front of families who were taking in breakfast at the track and watching workouts. On that same morning, a 3-year-old gray gelding named Positive Waves was victim to a nasty accident at the eighth pole when he broke his right front leg and also had to be put down
According to the State Gaming Commission, 15 horses have died from the time the Oklahoma Training Track opened for training through the first 26 days of the 40-day meet. Eight of those fatalities occurred during races. Two of them were in turf races, two others horse died during steeplechase races. Of the three fatalities on the main track, one of the horses, Brooklyn Major, had a cardiovascular episode and died after a race on July 31.
The eighth and latest fatal accident occurred Thursday after a turf race when Sayonara Rose, a 2-year-old filly, broke down while galloping on the main track on the way back to be unsaddled.
Seven other horses have died during morning training sessions, four on the Oklahoma track, three on the main track. Two other horses were put down during training incidents on the Oklahoma before the meet started.
“On the track, things happen,” said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who has lost two horses to fatal injury. “It hit me because I don’t have it happen very often.”
The State Gaming Commission investigates the causes and circumstances of each incident at Saratoga, as it does with every equine fatality at tracks — thoroughbred or standardbred — in the state.
“There is often no single common cause among the incidents that, unfortunately, result in equine fatalities,” Dr. Scott Palmer, the New York state equine medical director, said in a statement. “The Gaming Commission’s ongoing goal is to reduce the number of racehorse deaths and injuries to zero.”
In the early days of the 40-day Saratoga meet, horsemen said the main track was very deep.
Some trainers, like McLaughlin and Todd Pletcher, a 12-time winner of the Spa training title, moved all of their horses dirt works to the Oklahoma. Since then, Pletcher has worked some of his horses on the main track, but mostly he has taken his horses to the Oklahoma, including Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming and Belmont champ Tapwrit.
McLaughlin, who has a synthetic training track at his private Greentree Training Center behind the barns on the Saratoga backstretch, worked his Travers horse, Fayeq, over the Oklahoma on Thursday. It was the second consecutive work for the colt on the Oklahoma after two straight works on the main track before the meet opened.
“We are real happy with this (Oklahoma) track,” McLaughlin said. “That’s why we keep coming over here. We’ve worked on the main out of the gate, and it’s OK, too. We’ve just been liking this one better.”
Jockey Javier Castellano, who was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame earlier this month, rode Preakness winner Cloud Computing in the Jim Dandy here on July 29. They finished last in the five-horse field. Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming, trained by Pletcher, could only manage a third.
“I don’t know,” Castellano said. “The best 3-year-olds in the country … turning for home (in the Jim Dandy) they struggled. Maybe it could be the track. The first two weeks, the track is so deep. It has to be something, it has to be the track. That’s all I can say.”
Castellano said horses he has ridden have stumbled or bobbled past the wire following races. He said that is because the horses are very tired from running on a deep surface.
Since the Jim Dandy, Pletcher said the track has gotten better.
“It is definitely tighter than it was Jim Dandy day,” Pletcher said. “I would say it is playing at least a second to a second and a half faster at a mile and an eighth than it was.”
Glen Kozak, the New York Racing Association’s vice president of facilities and racing surfaces, has been working on the Saratoga track — as well as those at Belmont and Aqueduct -— for the past nine years.
“I could not let them train on it if it wasn’t right,” said Kozak, who previously held the same position for the Maryland Jockey Club. “There is nothing worse than having an incident take place. Absolutely, I take it personally. How can you not? If you don’t, you should not be doing this. There is nothing worse in this game.”
Trainer Tony Dutrow has his horses stabled on the Oklahoma Training Track. That’s where he trains all of them since Positive Waves, a horse he trained, had his fatal accident.
“I am a NYRA guy, I love New York racing. I want to be here, I don’t want to be anywhere else,” Dutrow said. “But I have seen way too many good trainers’ horses going over there (main track) and coming back bad.”
Dutrow would not put all of the blame on the race track. He said the equine athletes can have underlying issues that cannot be detected.
Injuries in horse racing, and, unfortunately fatalities, have been and always will be part of the game.
Kozak and his crew do everything they can to make sure the track is in the best shape possible. He has worked with Mick Peterson, the executive director of the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory in Kentucky.
Tests are done for moisture content in the dirt racing surface as well as the cushion depth. It is monitored constantly because there are 1,800 horses on the grounds and virtually all of them are on the track every day. Training on the main track during the meet runs from 5:30 a.m. until 10 a.m. with one harrowing break between 8:15 and 8:45 a.m. The Oklahoma Training Track is available daily from 5:30 to 11 a.m. with harrowing breaks at 7 a.m. and 9 a.m.
There is going to be some wear and tear. In the afternoons, Kozak said the track is monitored after every race.
Kozak said he has solicited opinions from the top trainers at the meet about the track. Pletcher said he would like to see the main track open for training on June 15. For this year, the main track opened on July 5. Kozak said 45 to 50 tons of clay and 10,000 tons of sand went into the track before the meet started.
“By opening early, it would give the track time to settle,” Pletcher said. “Everyone could assess it and see how it is and, if needed, make adjustments.”
There is no definitive reason why horses are breaking down. There is no cure for a horse taking a bad step or landing in a hole that may have gotten there because of earlier training.
“That is why it is so frustrating,” Violette said. “There are no black and white answers. We might never find out. This is never going to be a perfectly safe sport.”