Four dead horses at Rillito Park

Rillito Park Racecourse opened its doors last weekend after a year of closure due to COVID – and had to deal with four horse deaths in that first weekend. Rillito’s situation points to a problem that haunts horse racing in general.

There is a lot of horse racing history at Rillito Park. Horses are racing again after a break due to COVID, but this weekend four horses got into trouble there and ended up being put down.

Quarter horses are the dragsters of the horse world, famous for their blistering speed over a quarter mile or less. Rillito Park has been operating quarter horses for almost 80 years. COVID forced the park to take a year off. The first weekend back drew large crowds but four horses had to be put down: three due to injuries on the track, one due to a freak accident where it reared, fell and fell broke his neck.

Rory Goree’ chairs the Arizona Racing Commission. He saw the injured horses at Rillito. He says he speaks for himself, not the commission when he calls for reforms like high-tech X-rays to regularly screen horses before they race and fewer races so horses have more time to rest.

He says a lot of tracks have issues and as for Rillito:

“I felt they had done the best job possible. But if the horses that come to run are running too much or have pre-existing conditions. You could have the best track surface in the world. You’re still going to have a lot of breakdowns because the horses are going flat out.

Rillito says it goes beyond working towards a safe trail. He has an equine wellness program that checks a database to see if the horse had an old injury and then watches for signs that the injury might be getting worse.

Assistant track manager Elisabeth Carter comments on welfare.

“I take notes and we focus on that during the exam. And so every horse is flexible and they are put into a trot and we check them for any lameness issues in the morning. Every horse is checked, every horse ran on the same surface, so it’s an even playing field.

Dr. Mary Scollay spent 30 years as a racetrack veterinarian for racetracks and for regulatory bodies. She says leads have an important role in keeping horses safe, but everyone who works with the horse has a responsibility to note any injuries that could become dangerous – especially the trainer who should not be afraid to tell the owner when a horse should not run.

“Some owners, you know, make that very clear. You do what’s best for the horse and I’ll be happy. Other people may express performance expectations that their advocacy for the horse is conditional: “I need this horse to pay its share. I cannot continue to train this horse. He must run. He needs to earn a check”.

Mike Weiss also manages Rillito and other tracks. He says he longs for safety but understands that horses and riders face powerful forces.

“These are athletes who are fragile athletes. They’re going 40 miles an hour. And you know, you have a 1200-pound athlete, going 40 miles an hour with a 115-pound athlete on top of them, you know, tight turns and everything, but they know their stuff. They are professionals, and when they do their best to keep everyone safe. We just had a few unfortunate incidents and I hope to get over that soon.

Rory Goree says tracks everywhere must reduce equine deaths.

“We need to make changes to the rules. We need to invest money in proper equipment if we want to keep doing this, otherwise our end is very near.



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