The raceway has referred to the cancellation as a “precautionary measure,” and says they’re taking all the necessary steps to ensure the infection is properly contained. Despite cancelling the races, the casino will be open for business as usual.
“There are some people who’ve been with the board for a number of years, and they can’t recall a situation like this,” said Lee Park of the New York State Racing and Wagering Board.
For now, raceway officials have implemented preventative measures to make sure that the 14 currently affected horses do not spread the infection to the estimated 450 horses housed in the backstretch of the standard bred track. The infected horses are in the process of being removed from the backstretch, and quarantined. Though strangles is rarely considered to be fatal, younger horses are more susceptible from their immune system’s lack of exposure. Older horses are also at greater risk from simply having a weaker immune system as they age.
“Since it is so contagious, your horse can carry it around. If you have a host population that is very active, maybe traveling a lot, or makes contact with other horses, it can be spread very easily,” said Dr. Axel Sondhof, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. Formerly of Saratoga Equine, Dr. Sondhof now runs his own practice in Saratoga Springs.
“Another factor is that this particular disease produces what are called carriers. It can lay dormant within a horse. This horse might not display any of the typical clinical signs but still carry the bacteria, and then spread it to other horses unknowingly.”
Though there have been no reported incidents at any other tracks, the New York State Racing and Wagering Board said that tracks around the state are also taking extra steps to reduce the risk of spreading the infection. That includes Buffalo Raceway, Monticello Raceway, Yonkers Raceway and Vernon Downs. Buffalo is not accepting any horses shipped in from Saratoga, Monticello, or Vernon Downs. Monticello isn’t allowing any new horses to be shipped in or allowing any horses to return once they’ve left. Yonkers Raceway is requiring weekly tests of horses currently stabled there. Tioga Downs and Batavia Downs are currently closed and do not house any horses at this time.
As for the horses at Saratoga, they have been separated from the general population. Their recovery has just begun, and it might take a few weeks before they’re back to normal.
“First of all, an infected horse that shows clinical signs needs to be allowed to fully recover, meaning since there is oftentimes drainage involved from abscesses, theses abscesses need to heal. Once they heal, I would give at least an additional three weeks before that particular horse can be reintroduced to a horse population,” said Dr. Sondhof.
Though bacterial infections in humans are typically treated with antibiotics, Dr. Sondhof warns that their use on horses to treat the strangles infection could lead to some severe consequences.
“There is something very specific about this bacterium, and antibiotics aren’t really the first line of defense or treatment because they sensitize the horse to this bacterium and can result in some serious complications from reinfection, including death,” said Sondhof. “So because of that, we tend not to treat the horse with antibiotics, and instead, allow the infection to run its course. “
Once the horse appears to be healthy enough to return to the general population, one last step is taken to ensure the horses aren’t a threat to other horses.
“What we’ll do is culture their noses for these particular bacteria to make sure they’re not carrying it before they’re reintroduced.”
Racing at Saratoga was officially cancelled on March 23, which gives the currently infected horses just over three weeks to recover from the illness. Officials from the New York State Racing and Wagering Board don’t seem to think racing will be postponed beyond April 11.
“That was the request that Saratoga Raceway put forth to the board was to cancel racing until April 11, and the board approved that,” said Park. “The board has literally been on the ground addressing the situation and working with management at the track to assess what action should be taken.”