‘Better Get That Horse Scheduled’: Digital Tattoos On Track For Jan. 1, 2020 Takeover

by | 03.15.2019 | 11:10am
The practice of branding a lip tattoo onto a Thoroughbred for identification purposes will end in 2020

Digital tattoos and foal papers for racehorses not only are coming, they're here. After Dec. 31, 2019, only electronic rather than hard-copy registration papers will be issued and the physical ink-based lip tattoo will be officially replaced with a microchip. Curtis Linnell, executive vice president of the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau, and TRPB agent Emma Smith provided an update on digital tattoos for horsemen at the convention.

The electronic papers will include photographs of a horse's markings and identifying characteristics, as well as a history of ownership, sales, claims and more. Also to be logged: any time a set of electronic papers is pulled up for viewing, including by a track racing office, stewards, veterinarians and in the case of a claim or sale.

The microchip will be the size of a grain of rice and have a 15-digit number. The Jockey Club, North American racing's official registrar, made microchipping optional for foals born in 2016 and mandatory starting with thoroughbreds born in 2017. The electronic papers became available in 2018, though physical papers still could be requested.

“Lip tattoos will end Dec. 31, 2019,” Linnell said. “So if you want to get your horse with a lip tattoo, you better get that horse scheduled now with a technician. We will be applying digital tattoos at some point this year in addition to lip tattoos. Starting Jan. 1, 2020, we'll do digital for every horse that is identified. We aren't ordering new dyes, new cast irons or anything else.”

The process of registering horses remains the same, including taking a mane sample from the foal for DNA certification, he said.

When the microchips are scanned using bluetooth technology, the electronic papers and foal photographs will automatically be pulled up on a computerized device, including a tablet or phone. 

“This is a transition year,” Linnell said. “We're training tattoo technicians. Because we're doing both lip tattoos and at some point we'll turn on digital certification and doing the photos and upload, there will be some more time used per horse this year. That will not be the typical process after we get into just pure digital tattooing.” 


Eric Hamelback, the National HBPA's chief-executive officer, said most horsemen want to know how the advent of electronic registration changes the old standard of having papers on file in a certain track's racing office to get a preference date for determining what horses get in races that overfill. Linnell said there will be an electronic process to check out and administer papers but that comes under the purview of The Jockey Club, its InCompass system for racetracks and individual racing offices.

Hank Zeitlin, the TRA's executive vice president and TRPB president, said an array of technologies came together to achieve the monumental updating of the registration and identification processes of racehorses.

“A microchip now the size of a piece of rice is one thing,” he said. “You have these PCs, now becoming laptops, now becoming tablets, now becoming phones. We're leveraging all these technologies, including the communications systems now available to all of us to bring this so that it's available to an identifier in the paddock on the day of a race. Or to a guy at the gate on the day you arrive with your horse. It's something we couldn't do without technology moving forward in other areas. 

“It took a few organizations collaborating to get this done well. The Jockey Club is cooperating with horsemen with the TRPB, making their database available to our identifiers. Right now when you go to identify a horse, all you have is a physical piece of paper. In the future when we go to do this, we'll be able to scan this horse's neck and the foal photos will pop up. So the integrity of that identification gets enhanced because of the collaboration. The tracks themselves are having to make investments in technology.

“A lot of times we hear in the industry how people try to do their own thing, step on each other. This is a really good example of a collaborative effort amongst a number of organizations.”

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