The home of the Belmont Stakes is laps ahead of other U.S. racetracks when it comes to keeping horses safe.
Belmont Park and other tracks around the state of New York have had some of the fewest horse deaths in the sport. Amid the 26 horse deaths at California's Santa Anita Park since late December, the Belmont will be run Saturday on a track that national observers say is among the safest and best maintained in the country.
A major reason for the high praise is the attention given to Belmont Park's dirt and turf track surfaces by Glen Kozak, senior vice president of facilities and racing surfaces at the New York Racing Association.
"They've just turned the corner and not all the racetracks have kind of turned that corner where they feel like this is how they manage it," said Dr. Mick Peterson, executive director of the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory in Lexington, Kentucky. "And that's really where they're in the lead."
Belmont Park's 2018 fatality rate of 0.98 per 1,000 starts is significantly under the national average of 1.68, and there hasn't been a fatal breakdown in the Belmont, the third race of the Triple Crown, since 1993. Compare that to a 2.42 fatality rate at Churchill Downs, the home of the Kentucky Derby, and 2.33 at Pimlico Race Course, which hosts the Preakness.
Tyler Gaffalione, who won the Preakness aboard War of Will, has ridden at Belmont Park 66 times and raves about the surfaces being consistent. The right mix of clay, silt and moisture helps horses run evenly across the track.
"I love the track at Belmont," Gaffalione said. "Every time I've gone there it's been very consistent. It feels like every horse gets over it well. It plays fairly. You can be in front. You can come from behind. I think they do a tremendous job."
The Belmont has not had a fatal breakdown since 1993.
Kozak and his team use technology and old-fashion grit to make the track surfaces consistent.
They keep copious amounts of data using ground-penetrating radar and sensors that track the moisture content in the tracks. They also have a weather station that tracks rainfall and wind speed. In addition to the advanced information, Kozak puts the onus on his employees to pay attention to details when watering or raking the 1 ½-mile dirt oval and separate training track, or filling divots on one of the two turf courses.
"You are impacting either horses' lives or human lives," Kozak said. "As far as reducing (injuries and deaths), we're just one of the pieces of that puzzle, for sure. The focus is always on the surface, but it's the training in the morning, it's the veterinarians that take care of the horses, it's the blacksmiths that shoe the horses, it's the exercise riders that possibly can feel a problem before it becomes a catastrophic problem."
Belmont Park has not experienced a catastrophic trend since a spate of breakdowns in 2011-12. Because of the changes made since, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association has endorsed the work New York racing is doing in conjunction with the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory in Kentucky.
"The evidence is very clear that the investment and the persistence and the insistence of putting forth the very, very best industry racing surfaces at Belmont Park," said Steve Koch, the NTRA Safety & Integrity Alliance executive director who has repeatedly said one horse death is one too many. "At Belmont Park, NYRA racing, Glen Kozak and his team and the way they do things up there, that is going to be our industry benchmark."
It's not just about the Belmont Stakes, though that is when the spotlight shines brightest on the massive track in New York. Limiting injuries caused by the surface arguably is more important than ever given the current climate around horse racing and how many casual fans may tune in for Saturday's race.
Peterson describes what's happening in New York as a positive "culture change." He said consistent surfaces are important because horses with their long strides take longer to adapt to changes from softer to harder tracks, or vice versa, than humans. Peterson compares it to someone missing a step off a curb — but is far worse for a horse.
Kozak's work is not proprietary, he assists other tracks.
"In this industry, it's a reflection on everybody, so the more that we can do and the more helpful and to outline the best practices that we do, a bunch of different jurisdictions have been in contact with what we do or how we do it or where we bought our horse ambulance or how we built our water truck," Kozak said. "I'm an open book. Our information isn't secret by any means, and if it can help another jurisdiction to make a surface better or to help the industry, it's the best thing for everybody."
Gaffalione expects other tracks to pick up some of what Belmont is laying down on its surfaces.
"They definitely are the elite," the jockey said. "They hold themselves to a higher standard that others will soon follow."