Gov. Mark Gordon urged the Wyoming Gaming Commission Thursday to find answers to what has been causing an uptick in horse racing deaths at Wyoming Downs Racetrack in Evanston this summer. At least 10 horses have died while racing at Wyoming race tracks this season, all but one the Wyoming Downs’ Evanston track.
Although live horse racing in Wyoming has had one of its biggest years for wagering and participation, it also was one of the biggest seasons for racing-related horse fatalities. Gordon said the commission needs to take a sober outlook at the issue.
“It is exciting that horse racing is going as well as it is, and one of the things, though, that I think we need to be conscious of is the fact is this has been a difficult year, as you all know,” he said.
Although Gordon made it clear he wasn’t pointing fingers at any one source for the equine deaths, he urged the commission to take an active approach in addressing the issue. He said the commission has the “unenviable position” of having to investigate the horse deaths, which he believes need to be addressed honestly and correctly.
“It is interesting to look at the various potential causes for some of the breakdowns that we’ve seen and to realize that there’s a variety of reasons why that’s happened,” he said. “Unfortunately, I think it falls a little bit to this commission to think of the things that we can do.”
Not Unusual Compared To Industry
Some members of the commission downplayed the significance of the conflict when responding to Gordon on Thursday, saying that the Wyoming deaths are not significant when compared to what is happening in the horse racing industry as a whole.
Gaming Commission Vice Chair Paul Covello said there is a discrepancy between people who work in agriculture and with animals every day, and the public at large on these types of issues. He said the commission needs to be aware of these optics.
“To us, it’s a normal way of life, but to the rest of the wagering public and to most of the people out there in the rest of the world, they see this as a catastrophic thing when it happens,” Covello said. “We need to be very aware of how the wagering public sees and how critical it is that we keep the right type of attitude toward this.”
The commission had previously planned to release and discuss the results of an investigative report on the horse deaths at Wyoming Downs at Thursday’s meeting, but delayed releasing the full report until its next meeting in November.
In July, the commission restarted a safety committee that had gone dormant over the past few years to oversee the investigation into the injuries at the racetrack.
Wyoming Gaming Commissioner Charles Moore gave a sneak preview of the investigation and said the results have been “inconclusive.”
Because of safety measures implemented by Wyoming Downs very shortly after many of the equine deaths, he believes it is impossible to pinpoint exactly what caused them. Despite some calls from the public to shut down the track entirely, Wyoming Downs’ staff refused.
“There’s not anything where we can say it was just this reason for those breakdowns,” he said.
Wyoming Downs General Manager Frank Lamb said the results of the investigation are not as inconclusive as some might think. He believes the racetrack has already received valuable feedback from the safety commission on what it can do better.
At Wyoming Downs, he said 431 drug tests were given to horses, with 13 coming back as positive for illegal quantities of substances. Moore said many of these positive tests were illegal quantities of legal medication.
At Sweetwater Downs in Rock Springs, 263 samples were taken with only one test returning positive for illegal substances. At Energy Downs in Gillette, 215 samples were taken with five positives.
Moore said the safety committee has stressed a need for collaborative effort between the state, horsemen and operators to work toward a common goal of safety. This includes developing a coordinated effort for better track conditions and sharing equipment. He believes this must take place through cultural change.
Moore said there are also concerns about the workouts the horses receive. One of the requirements Wyoming Downs put in this summer is that all horses must have at least one workout at their racetrack, and first-time starters must receive two. Tracks also have reduced races and implemented mandatory off-periods for certain ages of horses.
They are also now inspecting all horses before they race, a service they didn’t perform on every horse at the beginning of the summer. Moore said there were 26 pre-race examinations that resulted in a disqualified horse this summer throughout the state.
Half the horses that died in Wyoming this summer were 2-year-olds, which some have said is too young for horses to be racing. Moore said there could be some consideration given to hosting fewer races for this young age group and creating more emphasis on older horses.
He also suggested the idea of hosting fewer consecutive weeks of racing.
Commissioner Daniel Schiffer said some of the horses that raced in Wyoming this year also have participated in illegal, underground racing circuits. He said the safety committee will attempt to address this issue in the future.
There were 445 races run in Wyoming in 2023 through Thursday, with 3,466 race entries made by 2,264 quarter horses and 1,202 thoroughbred horses.
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.