Pennsylvania horse racing officials have launched an investigation after searches at Parx Racing in Bensalem last week revealed medications and syringes viewed as contraband.
Tom Chuckas, the state’s director of thoroughbred horse racing, described searches of a barn, grooms’ quarters and tack rooms where riding gear is kept during a Tuesday meeting of the State Horse Racing Commission.
“In our enforcement action, I can say, without getting into too much detail, a significant amount of contraband was discovered, dealing with medications” some of which were unlabeled or expired, Chuckas said.
“I regret to say that there were other contraband items that have no business on the backside, with needles and syringes and some other things that we discovered,” he said in a video clip of the virtual meeting, posted on social media.
Chuckas’ staff is in charge of investigating use of the illegal substances to improve horse performance, a perennial problem in the sport.
Chuckas, whose unit is in the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, said he was limited in what he could disclose because “many of these carry an active investigation.”
Kathryn Papp, an equine veterinarian, shared the video clip of Chuckas’ remarks on Twitter. And a state agriculture department spokesperson confirmed an “ongoing investigation” is underway because of what was found.
“This was routine enforcement work where our commission inspectors were there to inspect the track and the facilities,” said Shannon Powers, the spokesperson for the agriculture department. Inspectors “found items that warranted investigation.”
More than 1,400 thoroughbred race horses have died in Pennsylvania’s three tracks since 2010, and doping remains a key concern despite attempts at reform, The Inquirer reported in March. The industry, meanwhile, has drawn about $3 billion in state subsidies, allocated from taxes on slot revenue at casinos.
Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed shifting much of that state funding — $199 million a year — to a college scholarship program, instead. The Pennsylvania Equine Coalition told The Inquirer earlier this year that such a measure would cost the industry thousands of jobs. Last month, two state legislators — State Sen. Wayne Fontana (D., Allegheny), and State Rep. Jordan Harris (D., Philadelphia) — wrote co-sponsorship memos in support of the proposal.
Elizabeth Rementer, a spokesperson for the governor, reiterated Thursday that “it is time for the industry to support itself and continue to build upon the unprecedented generous economic investment made by the commonwealth.”
The pandemic quieted activity at the track last year, and also meant fewer on-site inspections by horse racing commission staff.
In the meeting, Chuckas said the inspections at Parx were a “first step” in returning to the work carried out pre-COVID-19. “Moving forward, I think it’s fair to say that the other tracks will see the same enforcement action,” he said during the meeting.
Powers said the inspections on Friday, May 21, and Saturday, May 22, did not amount to a “raid,” as they had been characterized in some reports. Commission staff conducted searches and ran 66 out-of-competition tests, Powers said. Those tests are essentially “surprise testing,” she said. She did not disclose results. The staffers also searched more than 70 vehicles, as well as the offices and three veterinarians.
Parx cooperated with the inspections, she said.
“We cooperate with any type of search and we do not condone anybody having anything in their possession that they shouldn’t, and we certainly support the commission on that,” said Joe Wilson, chief operating officer of Parx Racing.
On Tuesday, 25 horses were scratched from races at Parx, Thoroughbred Daily News reported this week. Wilson said three of those horses were connected to the commission’s search.
“Three of the horses were scratched as a result of a trainer being suspended Monday,” Wilson said, because of what was found by commission investigators. Wilson declined to identify the trainer, and Powers said she could not confirm whether any other action was taken.
The Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association represents owners and trainers who race at Parx. Michael Ballezzi, the association’s executive director, did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
The commission had been meeting by phone during the pandemic, and Tuesday’s meeting was its first by video conference. The session was not recorded. Powers said a transcript of the hearing should be available in 10 days.
Bryan Langlois is a small-animal veterinarian and horse racing enthusiast who regularly attends the commission’s monthly meetings. The disclosure of the enforcement action on Tuesday, he said, wasn’t on the agenda and came as “a little bit of a surprise.”
But he welcomed the transparency, and said it “should serve as a warning” to other race tracks in the state.
“A lot of us who are really passionate fans, we don’t want to see this sport brought down by bad actors,” Langlois said.
He added: “We know that there’s issues in this sport, and we know there’s issues that can be corrected.”
Testing horses on days they’re not competing is important, Langlois explained, because doping agents are often used during training and can clear a horse’s system by race day.
In its March 25 investigative article on the death rate for race horses, The Inquirer reported that of the more than 1,400 fatalities since 2010 at the state’s three thoroughbred tracks, half — 704 — died at Parx Racing, the track that is part of Pennsylvania’s largest casino.
Most of those horses were put down following catastrophic injuries that happened during a race or in training. Others dropped dead in their stalls.
In 2019, 59 horses died at Parx, nearly twice the death count the year before. Last year, when there were a third fewer races there due to the pandemic, the toll was still 39 dead horses.
Officials have suspended more than 1,800 licenses and handed out more than 4,500 fines statewide in the last five years, disciplining some violators for using banned drugs. However, the officials have said, none of the horses that died in the last two years was found to have been injected with illegal substances.