Two hundred miles away, the Maryland Racing Commission took note. According to minutes from its May 15, 2012 meeting, Executive Director J. Michael Hopkins emailed commission members after reading the Times' stories and recommended creating a safety committee "to review all of Maryland's policies and procedures and have the committee make recommendations to the commission if changes or additions to Maryland's policies and procedures are warranted."
The committee made its first report on Monday, recommending the adoption of medication standards, mandatory necropsies (the equivalent of autopsies) on all euthanized horses and a review of standards for a variety of other racing procedures. But those suggestions may have come too late. The report was not a blueprint for how to avoid New York's fate but instead something of a search for answers after Maryland repeated it. Just six weeks into this year's first meet, 10 horses were euthanized after races at
The committee's report came to no conclusion about what was causing the sudden rash of deaths and injuries. It did not find fault with the medications the horses were given or with the quality of the surfaces on which they ran. The horses were all trained by different people, were of varying ages and had varying periods of rest since their previous races.
What was missing from the report is the big picture. One major thing has changed about Maryland horse racing from 2011, when 10 horses died after races here, to 2012 when 21 did, to this year, when at least 10 and possibly more have been euthanized after just six weeks of racing, and that's money.
In 2010, Maryland's first slot machine parlors opened, with a share of the money going to subsidies for thoroughbred purses. That year, the total available for purse enhancements was about $1.2 million. In 2011, it was $7.2 million. In 2012, it was $17.9 million. Not all of that money was used to boost purses, but it has clearly had an effect. Average daily purses at Maryland's thoroughbred tracks went from about $160,000 a day pre-slots to $250,000 a day now.
In general, that's been a tremendous help to a long struggling industry. It has attracted better horses, and it has helped the tracks and owners forge a long-term deal that will afford an opportunity for Maryland racing to develop a new and sustainable business model. But it may also have produced some unintended and deadly consequences.
Nine of the 10 horses that died during the period the state studied were entered in claims races. Those are contests in which anyone can put in a "claim" to a particular horse before the race starts for a set price — presently anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000, depending on the quality of the field. At the end of the race, the claims are opened, and any claimed horses go to their new owners. In theory, it affords an easy way to buy or sell a horse, and it can give a savvy investor a chance to buy a horse with great upside potential. Most contests in Maryland are claims races.
But the claims system also has the potential for abuse. An owner looking to dump a horse that's past its prime or possibly injured can enter it into a low-level claims race. If the horse wins, the owner keeps the purse — presently $13,000 for the lowest level but about to go up to $14,000 — plus the sale price of the horse. If the horse breaks down during the race, the claiming owner is stuck with it.
At the lower tiers, horses in Maryland sometimes run for purses worth two or three times their value, and that creates a risk that they will come to be viewed as disposable commodities. Indeed, among the 10 horses euthanized in Maryland between Jan. 9 and Feb. 15, six were running in $5,000 claims races.
At the behest of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, the commission in February adopted a rule prohibiting a claimed horse from running its next race at a lower claims level. It should go further and require claimed horses to enter a higher-level race, as Maryland
The claims race rules aren't the only problem. Trainers and owners need to know they can't get away with things in Maryland that they couldn't in other states. We need a tight regulatory structure, and the steps the commission is taking to expand pre-race examinations of horses and adopt tougher drug standards are necessary. Those and all of the state's other regulations and practices need re-examination in light of racing's new circumstances; the risk-benefit analysis for some horse owners has changed with the advent of slots money, and Maryland's racing commission needs to keep up. It's just a shame that it didn't happen sooner because what has happened at Laurel Park so far this year was all too predictable.