New regulations requiring veterinarians and trainers to file and keep medical records on a horse in training may seem like a lot of extra paperwork, but regulatory veterinarians say it makes a big difference in their ability to keep horses safe. In a video conference held as part of this year’s Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit, Drs. Dionne Benson, Ryan Carpenter, Scott Palmer and Will Farmer gathered to discuss the advantages and challenges to veterinary records reporting.
“For me, it’s real simple: I think the regulatory body in whatever state you’re working in should have access to everything you do,” said Carpenter, who was the only private practice racetrack veterinarian on the panel. “I think you have to be very accurate in how you report your information, and not only in the paper format that we turn into the CHRB but also in conversations that take place with the regulatory vets. I’ve found that’s the best way to establish a working relationship that puts the horses best interests [at the forefront].
The Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation hosted its eighth Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit June 27 at Keeneland, with speakers touching off on disaster preparedness, jockey safety, equine injury, and Thoroughbred aftercare.
Here are a few things I didn’t know before attending this year’s event:
Detail matters in disaster planning. Obviously, the San Luis Rey Downs tragedy and a pair of major hurricanes reiterated to everyone in the horse industry that wherever you keep horses, you need disaster plans. One thing people may not think about is the impact beyond the first hours following a hurricane, tornado, fire, or flood. Dr. Roberta Dwyer, extension veterinarian at the University of Kentucky, recalled a serious ice storm in Central Kentucky several years ago which left her farm property without power or vehicular access for a week.Some things you may not have thought of when making plans:
-If you have well water, a loss of power also means a loss of water for your horses.
-Your help may not be able to access the farm to look after horses.
-Fencing or barns may be destroyed or unusable, and the longer access to your property is blocked, the longer it will take to get them fixed
-Mass power outages will also mean that gas stations and ATMs will be non-functional
-If you have more horses than trailer space and are forced to evacuate, you need to know which ones are going first and where you’re taking them.
An answer to an age-old question: Should horses be inside or out during a weather event? Dwyer said it depends on your barn, its location, and the type of weather that’s headed your way. If your barn is in a low-lying area and there’s a potential for flooding, the horses should be let out so they can seek shelter. If your barn is at the top of a windy hill and a storm system is coming, the barn may not be in the safest place for the horse. In the event of a tornado warning, Dwyer thinks flying debris is a big consideration and keeping horses inside may be the best way to protect them.
When it comes to weather at the track, change is a bigger problem than extremity. Horses, much like people, will gradually adjust to the temperature and humidity they’re exposed to. A panel made up of track managers and veterinarians agreed they’re more worried by significant changes in a short amount of time than they are warm or cold temperatures. Dr. Lynn Hovda, chief commission veterinarian for the Minnesota Racing Commission, noted Canterbury Park saw a change from two feet of snow to a high of 106 degrees in six weeks this season, along with significant humidity. That had her worried.Jeff Johnston, regional manager for the Jockeys’ Guild said he is more worried by ice than snow. Track surfaces are usually fine during icy weather because they’re harrowed a lot, but pathways to and from the paddock may not be. Further, Johnston pointed out changes from thaw and freeze can impact dirt surfaces in ways fans don’t think about. Before Turfway put in a synthetic surface, Johnston recalled overnight refreezing would tighten the dirt, but in the midafternoon on a weekend card, the ground would have thawed but not dried and the surface became loose and unsafe. This sometimes prompted race cancellations which the general public found difficult to understand.
The Equine Injury Database is starting to look at non-fatal injuries, and the results are pretty interesting so far. We knew that a horse’s appearance on a veterinarian’s list was an increased risk for fatal injury, but of course it also elevates the risk a horse will have a non-fatal injury. This does not seem to multiply with the number of separate instances a horse may have been placed on the list, but it also doesn’t ever go back down to normal again after the horse has been flagged once. Horses who have been on the list once have a 115 percent higher risk for fatal breakdown and a 79 percent higher risk for non-fatal fracture than horses who haven’t been flagged.Track-by-track data has also shown there’s variability in risk patterns post-veterinarian’s list depending on location – and obviously, regulatory body. When a horse comes off the list and is allowed to run, some locations saw the horse’s risk spike higher/spike longer than others.
…However, we need much, much more complete reporting before the database can provide us helpful guidelines to reduce risk. Parkin estimates he’s only getting about 25 percent of all non-fatal injuries that happen, between injuries that happen during training or incomplete reporting of injuries during the race day. There’s also a lot of injury risk we still don’t have a statistical explanation for, and more complete data could help fill in some gaps.
The private nature of veterinary records could be part of the issue – for Parkin, and for horses. Of course, it would be easier for Parkin to identify trends in horses’ history if he knew what they were being treated with and when. But veterinary records legally belong to the owner of the horse at the time a record was created, and aren’t required to be disclosed to subsequent owners, Parkin, or state officials (with a few limited exceptions). Parkin suspects it’s no accident then, that a horse’s risk of fatal injury is 28 percent higher in its first start with a new trainer than it was the last time it started. Part of that could be the trainer’s lack of familiarity with the horse, but part of it may be that he’s in the dark about what the horse has experienced medically.
In case you needed more evidence, bringing a horse back after an injury may not be worth it if the horse is running at the lower levels. That’s because, according to Parkin’s data, they’re probably going to be starting for a purse that’s 20 percent lower than what they were running for before injury. If you’re already running a cheap horse, you have to ask whether it’s worthwhile. Among horses who suffered a non-fatal injury, only 46 percent raced again; those who did had a fatal breakdown rate of 3.1 percent – significantly higher than the .18 percent through the rest of the population.
Microchipping can help with more than verifying identity at saddling time. Marc Guilfoil, executive director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, noted that microchips can put a halt to abuse of shockwave therapy – if used correctly. The temporary analgesia produced by shockwave makes it a temptation for trainers to haul horses off-site to apply the therapy close to race time, then come back in. Prevailing wisdom suggests they may lie to the security attendant at the stable gate about the identity of the horse in the trailer (if they are asked for an identity at all) to evade suspicion. Guilfoil expects stable gate attendants can scan microchips to create a digital record of when a horse came on and off the grounds.
“Putting an inexperienced jockey on an inexperienced horse is a recipe for disaster.” Peta Hitchens, research fellow in the equine orthopedic research group at the University of Melbourne, presented stats gathered from five years of data from the California Jockey Accident Database. She found an apprentice has a 50 percent higher risk for injury than a fully-licensed rider, and several additional factors could add more risk on top of that 50 percent increase, including: the rider also has less than 250 races to their name; the horse has had less than five starts; the race is a sprint; the race takes place on a dry, fast track. Unsurprisingly, fatal injuries to horses are risky for riders: 60 percent of fatal horse breakdowns were accompanied by a jockey injury.
We’ve known rider falls are expensive, but now we know how expensive. Jockey claims in the Finish Line Insurance Group, which protects California riders, averaged a staggering $103,000 each in cases of fatal horse breakdowns. Claims for the average exercise rider fall: $28,000 each.
Besides being an important welfare consideration, having a sports medicine physician to look after the jockey colony can reduce costs. Dr. Kelly Ryan, primary care sports medicine physician with MedStar Health, admits her services don’t come cheap. MedStar contracts with the Maryland Jockey Club to allow Ryan to provide sports medicine and general care to jockeys and backstretch workers in the state. She does baseline concussion testing for jockeys and clears them to ride after an injury, but she also treats horse bites and kicks, coordinates follow-up care after accidents, and helps provide sports psychology services when needed.Ryan hears often from people who admire Maryland’s system of providing experienced care to their riders, but who say those services are inaccessible in other areas. Not true, she says. There are sports medicine physicians available nearly everywhere, and if you can’t find one of those, an athletic trainer can serve as a consultant on- or off-site for riders. Athletic trainers in other sports are on the court or field to be the eyes and ears of sports medicine doctors to identify potential problems an athlete may be battling. They’re also a lot cheaper than sports medicine physicians. Another cost consideration: In her role, Ryan says she reduces workers’ compensation claims because she can treat a lot of on-the-job injuries in her office at the track.
We’ve heard it before, but the quality of emergency care for a jockey is greatly improved when you have someone skilled on– Ryan is not the person riding in the ambulance to a fallen jockey during a race, but she can act as a conduit.“When you go to the hospital and they have on the paperwork ‘Complaint: rider fell from horse,’ that’s a lot different from the way we saw them, coming off at 40 miles per hour,” said Ryan, who can describe whether and where the rider was stepped on, and how exactly they hit the ground.
Language is key when it comes to talking about OTTBs. Jen Roytz, executive director of the Retired Racehorse Project and writer of our Aftercare Spotlight series, revealed one of the biggest misconceptions she encounters when talking to people about off-track Thoroughbreds. “Often they will tell me, ‘Oh I rescued him from the track,’” she said. “I constantly have to, very politely, correct them and say, ‘Why do you feel that horse was rescued?’ When they start talking through it, they convince themselves it wasn’t really ‘rescued.’ The lay person, mainstream public, does not give enough credence to how well cared for these horses are.”
Turf racing may be gaining stretch in the American landscape, and that comes with surface concerns. Trainer Graham Motion mentioned that he loves a good turf horse, but anecdotally he has concerns about long-term wear and tear on a track. This theme came up again from surfaces expert Dr. Mick Peterson, who noted there’s no easy way to freshen a turf surface. A few options for tracks trying to figure this out – change the racing schedule to let grass grow at the appropriate season, create short turf-only meets to give courses elsewhere on a circuit a rest, and increase the width of turf tracks.