Investigation into horses’ deaths will take time

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The snowy conditions during Monday’s racing at The Meadows were not a factor in the death of either of two horses who died minutes apart, according to harness racing officials.


“It had nothing to do with the track,” said Kim Hankins, executive director of The Meadows Standardbred Owners Association, on Wednesday. “It was a phenomenal coincidence.”


The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture is investigating the deaths of the animals and has ordered that necropsies be done on both mares that died within about 15 minutes Monday afternoon. The results of testing, however, won’t be available for a month to 45 days.


“As far as an investigation, this is something the Harness Racing Commission initiates. There will be a follow-through, and the commission will take action if evidence is discovered and proven that the trainer has violated the rules in any way,” said Department of Agriculture press secretary Samantha Krepps.


Lislea Isabella, an 8-year-old mare, was preparing for race 14 when she appeared to “choke down” – an industry term for a type of inability to breathe – said Brady Brown, the driver. Virginia Schoeffel and Kathy Schoeffel owned the horse, and Steve Schoeffel was the trainer.


Then, during race 15, Little Bit Tricky, a 7-year-old driven by Brett Miller, broke a leg so severely that the horse had to be euthanized, Krepps said in a release. Michael Puff was the owner and Carl Cocciolone the trainer.


After Monday’s events, the Observer-Reporter received several calls about poor track conditions that afternoon. A replay of the 15th race on The Meadows’ website shows that snow was falling and there was some snow on the track.


According to the National Weather Service, snow began falling in the Washington area about 1 p.m. and ended between 7 and 8 p.m., with a snow accumulation of 3 to 3 1/2 inches.


Hankins dismissed claims of a poor track, saying that the North Strabane Township track was in “good” condition and that “nothing was said to any of the decision-makers until after the fact” about the conditions.


However, in a statement posted on the association’s website Tuesday, Hankins said a decision to cancel the 16th and final race on the card was due, in part, to “subpar track conditions.”


Mike Jeannot, president of The Meadows Racing, said safety is always the most important factor at the track, and that the track superintendent, management and horsemen representatives all play a part in any track decision. “They all felt comfortable with the track,” Jeannot said.


The Meadows is a member of the U.S. Trotting Association, which has been monitoring reports regarding Monday’s events, according to spokesman Dan Leary.


“It was very unusual,” said Leary, who declined to comment directly about the specific incidents.


Leary did point out that track condition classification and other decisions are determined by judges at each facility, but “in each case, the safety of the horses and drivers” must be a priority.


Ray Romanetti, trainer for six horses at The Meadows, adamantly defended the racetrack but said that while conditions were not a factor in the first horse’s death, “the track condition could have played a role” in the second horse’s death.


Hankins said horses have to be euthanized at the track only two or three times a year. He said it’s “terribly tragic” that there were two deaths within such a short period. “It’s like lightning striking the same tree twice.”


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