Penn National incident points out serious flaws in oversight
Injuries during racing and training are an unfortunate but inevitable part of this game. Research, scientific breakthroughs, advanced veterinary medicine, and common sense can be applied to reduce the incidents of injury and save horses that might have required euthanasia in the not-so-distant past.
When injuries do occur – especially those catastrophic injuries when a horse is in physical distress and cannot be saved – the animal deserves the attention of a licensed equine practitioner as quickly as is humanly possible.
That didn't happen at Penn National racetrack near Harrisburg, Pa., last Sunday morning, when a filly named Langfurs Answer suffered a severe fracture in her lower leg as she was pulling up from a routine gallop. She stumbled and fell to the track when the broken leg could not support her body weight. Enrique Alonso Jr., the son of the filly's trainer, was watching her near the gap on the backstretch, and rushed to her aid when the injury occurred. The exercise rider was thrown clear of Langfurs Answer and was not injured.
A call for a veterinarian and a horse ambulance was made immediately. It was 7:25 a.m., Alonso said.
The horse ambulance soon arrived, but there was no veterinarian. Langfurs Answer was in great distress and incapable of standing up.
So Alonso waited. And waited.
“She was whimpering, crying,” Alonso said. “She tried to get up a few times, but I just held her there on the ground. She laid there for an hour and 10 minutes.”
Alonso said he learned there was no commission veterinarian, association vet, or private practitioner on the grounds.
“There was no one licensed to put her down,” he said. “Nobody. I said I could go home and get a gun and shoot her, but that wasn't right, either.”
Alonso said the private vet that works for his father doesn't come out on Sundays, when training is light, but after receiving a call about the filly sent an associate to the track to euthanize Langfurs Answer.
Who's to blame for allowing this filly to lay there and suffer for over an hour?
Christopher McErlean, vice president of racing for Penn National and president of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations and a member of the board of trustees of the American Horse Council, said the track is under no obligation from the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission to have a veterinarian on the grounds during training hours – only during racing.
“It's unfortunate when any horse gets injured,” McErlean said, “but the trainers employ veterinarians. They should make arrangements to have their veterinarian there or available should they be needed.”
Samantha Krepps, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture that oversees the racing commission, said the track does bear some responsibility.
“The commission is looking into this unfortunate situation,” Krepps said via email. “The commission expects that prior to racing or training that any race facilities do all that it can to ensure the safety of all participants, both horse and human. It is their obligation to ensure the following:
– Ready access to emergency veterinary care in the event of an accident or illness during training and racing hours.
– Racetrack surface has been properly maintained, prepared and groomed for training or racing.
– Outriders properly trained on equipment and procedures with working communications systems in order to appropriately respond to emergencies.
– Horse and human ambulances staffed by properly trained individuals and adequately equipped for emergencies.
“The commission is committed to preservation and development of the Thoroughbred racing industry and considers the racehorse to be at the core of the industry,” Krepps said.
The commission investigated a similar Penn National incident in May 2010, when an injured horse was required to walk back to its barn because the horse ambulance was not manned and no veterinarians could be found on the grounds. (Click here to read about that incident.) A vet arrived an hour and 20 minutes after the injury and euthanized the horse. The difference this time was that the horse ambulance was on the scene within minutes.
Penn National has never applied for accreditation with the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Safety and Integrity Alliance, which mandates that a veterinarian be available during training.
Mike Ziegler, executive director of the Alliance, said Section N, under Veterinary Care in the Alliance Code of Standards, covers this type of incident.
The applicable paragraph reads: “Racetrack Members shall make certain that a practicing veterinarian is available for treatment at all times during Racing Periods and training hours. An organized rotation among practicing veterinarians to ensure coverage throughout Racing and training hours shall be considered a best practice.”
Failure to comply could result in suspension or revocation of Safety and Integrity Alliance accreditation until a track complies, Ziegler added.
But with Penn National not interested in the Alliance, the burden falls on the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission, a regulatory body that has proven itself in recent years to be inept and disengaged on matters of both integrity and welfare.
The Pennsylvania commission does not require pre-race veterinary inspection of horses to help ensure racing soundness. It was reluctant to comply with national standards for TCO2 testing for bicarbonate loading, a practice commonly known as milkshaking. A recently completed grand jury investigation exposes multiple problems in Pennsylvania horse racing, and urged the commission to investigate whether certain trainers should continue to be licensed, including the current president of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, Stephanie Beattie. Another trainer, Darrel Delahoussaye, was indicted by the grand jury and agreed to give up his Pennsylvania trainer's license for the rest of his life.
At some point, someone in the governor's office is going to take notice, and either clean house or put the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission on notice that it is not doing its job of protecting the public or the animals who compete in this game.