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Four horses dead at Rillito Park opening weekend

Efforts to improve horse safety nationwide
Posted: 10:26 PM, Mar 02, 2022
Updated: 2022-03-03 07:32:37-05
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — The Rillito Park racetrack opened last weekend after a year closed from COVID—and had to deal with four horse deaths in that first weekend. Rillito’s situation points to an issue haunting horse racing in general.

There’s a lot of horseracing history at Rillito Park. The horses are running again after a break due to COVID but over this weekend four horses ran into trouble there and ended up put down.

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

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

He says plenty of tracks have problems and as for Rillito:

“I felt that they had done the best job that they could. But if the horses that are coming to run are run 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 full blast.”

Rillito says it goes beyond working toward a safe track. It has an equine wellness program that checks a database to learn if the horse had an old injury, then watches for signs the injury could become worse.

Assistant track manager Elisabeth Carter does wellness observations.

“I make notes and we focus on that during the exam. And so every horse is flex and it's trotted off and we examine it for any lameness iIssues in the morning. Every horse is checked, every horse has run up and down the same surface so it's an even playing field.”

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Doctor Mary Scollay spent 30 years as a racetrack veterinarian for tracks and for regulating agencies. She says tracks have important roles in horse safety but everyone who works with the horse has a responsibility to note injuries that could become dangerous –especially the trainer who should not be afraid to tell the owner when a horse should not race.

“Some owners, you know, make it very clear. You do what's best for the horse and I will be happy. Other individuals may express expectations about performance that their advocacy for the horse is conditional: ‘I need this horse to pay his way. I can't just keep training this horse. He's got to run. He needs to earn a check’.”

Mike Weiss manages Rillito and other tracks too. He says he strives for safety but understands 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 stuff but they know their job. They're professionals, and when they do their best to keep everybody safe. We just had a couple unfortunate incidents and I'm hoping to get past that soon.”

Rory Goree says tracks everywhere must reduce equine deaths.

“We have got to make the rule changes. We've got to invest money in proper equipment if we're going to continue doing this, otherwise our end is very near.”

Craig Smith is a reporter for KGUN 9. With more than 30 years of reporting in cities like Tampa, Houston and Austin, Craig has covered more than 40 Space Shuttle launches and covered historic hurricanes like Katrina, Ivan, Andrew and Hugo. Share your story ideas and important issues with Craig by emailing or by connecting on Facebook and Twitter.