Equine Safety Lessons Should be Learned the First Time

POSTED ON  |  12-03-2020

Aquaduct racecourse
I didn't get far into the California Horse Racing Board's assessment of the spike in Thoroughbred fatalities last year at Santa Anita Park before I came across a recommendation that I most assuredly agreed with. It also pained me. "Track veterinarians and examining veterinarians should be under the direct supervision of the official veterinarian or equine medical director (EMD)," read the CHRB report, which put forward ideas to protect horses going forward based on its findings.

That recommendation followed the CHRB report assessment that, previously, this was not occurring. It noted, "Organizationally the track veterinarian and examining veterinarians being supervised by the racing association's racing office poses an inherent conflict."

The recommendation makes perfect sense. While racing offices are concerned about horse safety, they're also concerned about maintaining field sizes—larger fields draw more handle. The recommended change would eliminate any conflict of interest. So why did my head hurt after reading this? It's because I also thought this was a good recommendation the first time I read it—nearly eight years ago.

After a rash of breakdowns at Aqueduct Racetrack in the winter of 2011-12, the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, upon a recommendation by the New York Racing Association, appointed a team of industry experts to conduct an investigation. The 209-page report that followed in September 2012 from the New York Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety served up this recommendation: "The NYRA organizational structure, which has the veterinary department reporting and accountable to the racing office, is a critical conflict-of-interest."

That recommendation followed a detailed assessment of the problem, including: "The accountability of the veterinary department to the racing office creates a critical conflict-of-interest that can impact the veterinarians' decisions. In other racing jurisdictions, this conflict is avoided by having all regulatory veterinarians employed by the racing commission or the state regulatory body. 

"The execution of scratches by racing office personnel, rather than the stewards, establishes an untenable and inappropriate dynamic in which laypersons resist or overtly challenge the recommendations of regulatory veterinarians. Field size, or the economic impact of a scratch, must never be a consideration when an examining veterinarian assesses a horse's suitability to race."

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