Track officials should address safety concerns

The nation's horse-racing industry could become a ward of the federal government due to reported safety concerns involving its golden egg, the horses.

Five of seven tracks at the head of this safety shortfall list are in New Mexico.

The New York Times recently reported an average of 24 horses die each week at U.S. racetracks and that, since 2009, 6,600 horses "broke down or showed signs of injury." In the last three years, the report states 3,600 horses either have died either racing or in training.

Ruidoso Downs, at 13.9 incidents of breakdowns or signs of injury per 1,000 starts, had the nation's highest rate the last three years.

Not far behind were Sunland Park (12.8) near Las Cruces and Zia Park (12.6) in Hobbs.

The Times story reports performance-enhancing drugs, pain medications, track conditions and jockey mistakes all contribute to the incidents.

Most disturbing is the track safety concerns seem to have become more lax since the issue attracted national attention in 2008. That year a horse named Eight Belles broke two ankles during the Kentucky Derby and had to be euthanized.

Congressional inquiries after the death of Eight Belles should have inspired the industry to crack down on those who violate drug policies or otherwise endanger horses and their jockeys. Instead, the Times reports, with racetracks adding casino gambling that has raised race stakes, the change may have provided a bigger incentive for trainers to race unfit horses.

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., on Monday issued a press release calling for uniform federal standards in the racing industry.

The Times story and Udall's clarion call are two pressure points to which New Mexico racing officials should immediately respond. The findings are disheartening and a quick, effective and continual response by the racing industry is needed and preferred over a federal government mandate.

We do not pretend to know everything that racetrack leaders across New Mexico can do to improve track safety records, but clearly it should include serious punishments for those who violate policies involving drugging the animals.

Vince Mares, head of the New Mexico Racing Commission, said Tuesday the agency plans to expand random testing of horses for illegal drug use, The Associated Press reported.

That is a start, but ultimate responsibility begins with individual horse owners and track officials whose actions should be to first protect their lifeblood, the animals.

New Mexico needs its five racetracks for esthetic and economic reasons. As Udall stated, the sport "showcases the majestic beauty of this animal and the athleticism of jockeys."

Horse races are fun to watch and they provide more than 10,000 jobs for New Mexicans.

Economically, the New Mexico Horse Breeders Association reports the breeding and racing industry pumps $400 million annually into the state's economy.

But this unique economy could be in jeopardy if racing leaders deplete public support by not providing comprehensive, proper, humane care for their animals. There is no justification for the number of incidents in which horses die or suffer injuries.

"It's hard to justify how many horses we go through," Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California Racing Board, told the Times.

"In humans you never see someone snap their leg off running in the Olympics. But you see it in horse racing."

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