One year ago, horsemen in New York were facing a major crisis when state government and racing regulators demanded answers for the sudden increase in equine racing fatalities at Aqueduct racetrack. Gov. Andrew Cuomo formed a task force to study the issue, and their report was the foundation of some significant recommendations that were put in place, not the least of which was medication reform.
One of the reasons the task force was able to examine the problem so thoroughly was cooperation of New York horsemen and veterinarians. Veterinary records for the previous 30 days on the deceased horses were made available to the task force with a simple request by the State Racing and Wagering Board. Those records were an important part of the task force's final recommendations on medication policy changes.
Depending on your point of view, California horse racing has a similar crisis right now. Recent revelations about seven horses from the barn of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert dropping dead in less than a year and a half have raised plenty of eyebrows, especially among fellow horsemen and veterinarians.
Fortunately, California has an ongoing post-mortem examination program that began compiling necropsy reports in 1990 on horses that died at California Horse Racing Board enclosures. It is the gold standard for equine post-mortem exam programs in the United States and possibly the world.
The program, conducted by the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory System at the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, has three primary objectives: determine the nature of injuries in racehorses; determine the reasons for these injuries; and develop injury prevention strategies. Close to 6,000 horses have been examined since the necropsy program began.
But the program has a flaw, and I think it's a major one. There is no requirement that veterinary records of deceased horses be submitted to researchers conducting the post-mortem examinations. Those records are an important component for researchers who are trying to meet the program's objectives.
You would think that owners, trainers and veterinarians would want answers as to why a horse broke down or died suddenly from heart failure, internal bleeding or some other cause. You would think they would do whatever they could to save other horses from suffering a similar fate in the future. And that would include agreeing to a policy that requires veterinary records to be submitted on all horses that died.
If you thought that owners, trainers and veterinarians in California wanted to do that, you would be wrong. Sadly.
For three years now, the CHRB has gone round and round with horsemen and vets on this issue. The CHRB's Medication and Track Safety Committee proposed an amendment back in 2011 that would require six months of veterinary records be submitted on horses that died at California racetracks or licensed training centers.
And they appear no closer today to getting board approval than they were when the proposal – an amendment to CHRB Rule 1846.5, Postmortem Examination – was first made.
“Over strenuous objections from owners, trainers and veterinarians, the board has not moved forward on this proposal,” said Dr. Rick Arthur, the CHRB's equine medical director.
CHRB commissioner Bo Derek has pushed this proposal hard, but the resistance to change has been formidable. Many horsemen and veterinarians believe it's nobody's business. And that, of course, is one of racing's biggest problems: they think it's their game, everyone else be damned.
That may be changing, said Arthur.
“As an aside,” he said in an email, “both IFHA (International Federation of Horseracing Authorities) and groups here in the U.S. have discussed requiring trainers to maintain complete medical histories available for inspection at any time.”
Should California require veterinary records be submitted to researchers investigating horse deaths?
- Yes (94%, 1,244 Votes)
- No (6%, 82 Votes)
Total Voters: 1,325
Opposition to the veterinary records amendment to the necropsy program comes, among others, from the Southern California Equine Foundation, representing the veterinary community, and Thoroughbred Owners of California.
At a July 2011 meeting of the CHRB, medical doctor Mark DeDomenico, speaking on behalf of TOC, said the owners organization was against the proposal out of fear that it would lead to a “witch hunt” against certain trainers or owners. He suggested the research be done as a blind study so that no one would be able to identify the horse, trainer, owner, or veterinarian involved. If that were the case, researchers would not be able to determine, for example, that one trainer had seven horses drop dead in a relatively short period of time.
Baffert, who is on the board of the TOC (chaired by his longtime client and friend Mike Pegram), said in a statement made through a public relations firm that he was doing everything he could to determine what may have contributed to the death of the horses in his barn.
“I hope that research by CHRB and its pathologists will discover information helpful to understanding the reasons that I, and many of my colleagues, have had horses suffer this unfortunate fate.”
But is Baffert doing everything possible to help researchers fulfill their mission?
If he really wanted to, Baffert, who wields enormous power in California racing, would convince the TOC, fellow trainers, and racetrack practitioners that the time has come to support the amendment to CHRB Rule 1846.5.
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