New Horse Racing Safety Rules Pending In NJ

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In the wake of nationwide attention and concern about the safety of racehorses, New Jersey officials this week announced a series of proposed rules changes for racing in the state.

The announcement by Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal and New Jersey Racing Commission Executive Director Judith A. Nason break down to three elements.

The first is banning the use of riding crops in thoroughbred racing — unless the crop is needed in an emergency situation to avoid injury to the horse or the rider.

The second authorizes Nason to determine whether to postpone or cancel races that would be held under extreme weather conditions.

The third expands reporting requirements to the state in the event of a race horse’s death.

“We take seriously our responsibility to protect all horse racing participants here in New Jersey,” Grewal said in a statement. “We believe the reforms we’ve proposed will make the actual competition safer and more humane for all concerned, and at the same time enhance the State’s understanding of pre-existing health conditions and other trends that could endanger the lives of race horses.”

The use of a whip on standardbred horses — who race in the state at the Meadowlands Racetrack and Freehold Raceway — also would be limited under the proposal. There will be a 60-day period for public comments once the proposals are formally published.

Cautious optimism from operators

Both Meadowlands Racetrack operator Jeff Gural and Monmouth Park counterpart Dennis Drazin told NJ Online Gambling on Wednesday that they are generally supportive of the initiatives.

But Drazin, who attended the commission meeting, noted that “the devil is in the details.”

For instance, Drazin said that he hoped that an infraction of the riding crop rule for thoroughbreds by a jockey would not necessarily result in a fine or suspension for a horse’s owner. Drazin added that a question arose about ensuring that New Jersey keeps in sync with possible national rule revisions.

Even when used in an emergency, only the “soft tube portion” of the riding crop could be applied — and only to the horse’s shoulders or hind quarters. The rule also would prohibit the use of any part of the riding crop on a horse’s head or flanks, and mandate legal limits for the length, diameter, and weight of the riding crop.

The grip also would have to be smooth, per the attorney general’s statement, with no protrusions or raised surfaces and with a shaft that would have to be covered by shock-absorbing material.

Gural noted that concerns about horse racing-related fatalities — particularly dozens of equine deaths in the past year at Santa Anita Park — are almost entirely limited to the thoroughbred side of the equation.

“Harness racing horses are hardier than thoroughbreds anyway, and we race at night, so concerns about excessive heat would apply much less to us,” Gural said. “Our possible issue for us might be the cold. But I’ve heard of races on frozen rivers in Canada. Of course we won’t go that far.

“But we support these changes in light of all the negative publicity out there,” added Gural, who already had placed limitations on the use of whips at his track because he said it turned off some first-time visitors who believe the horses are being harmed.

Cracking the whip — on occasion

Under the proposed new rules, any “one-handed whipping” of standardbred horses in harness races would be eliminated through the rule’s requirement that sulky drivers must keep a line of the reins in each hand through the race finish.

Application of the whip by sulky drivers using only “wrist action” would be permitted under the proposed rule, but even that use would be significantly restricted. The harness racing version also would shorten the permissible length of any whips used, as well as the length of the “snapper” attached to the end of the whip.

The issue of weather played most prominently this year at The Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park in July. Concerns about the heat and humidity led Drazin to “call an audible” after the second race, canceling almost half of the card and moving the remaining stakes races to 6 p.m. and later.

Drazin said that his team already consults with the state’s veterinarian on weather issues.

“The issue may be, what time are we doing this — is it every hour on race day?” asked Drazin, who recalled a few years ago when he canceled a turf card at the Meadowlands a day early only to see the local weathermen wind up missing the mark. “Sometimes there might only be five minutes to make the call.”

But Drazin added, “We know we have to be flexible, and we expect to work out reasonable rules of checks and balances.”

As for equine fatalities — one of which which just happened at Saturday’s Far Hills Race Meeting steeplechase event — the new rules would require that within 48 hours of a horse’s death, the horse’s trainer or custodian must file a completed equine fatality report with the Racing Commission’s state steward or chief state veterinarian. The rule would apply for any equine fatality that occurs at a racetrack during training or racing, or within one hour after training or racing.

In addition, the attending veterinarian would be required to certify the horse’s cause of death and submit records to the state steward describing all drugs, medications, and other treatments administered to the horse within the prior 30 days.

Both Gural and Drazin said that they already cooperate with state officials on such matters, so those changes would not be an undue burden.

Photo by Lukas Gojda / Shutterstock.com

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John Brennan

John Brennan has covered NJ and NY sports business and gaming since 2002 and was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist in 2008, while reporting for The Bergen County Record.

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