When a disease outbreak happens at a racetrack — as they do a few times a year — veterinarians, horsemen, and racing officials quickly become concerned about biosecurity protocols, the measures that can minimize the chances for disease to travel from one horse to another. One state veterinarian is hoping that, armed with a little more knowledge, stewards can reduce the spread of germs before they cause an epidemic.
Dr. Karen Lopez, deputy state veterinarian in Delaware, presented ideas to the stewards gathered at the recent Racing Officials Accreditation Program continuing education event at Delaware Park.
“If you're not enforcing biosecurity at the track, horses are going to get sick and money is going to be lost,” Lopez said.
Many people already know equine diseases can travel on hands, boots, shared rub rags, bits, grooming equipment, and buckets. Fomites (inanimate carriers of germs) can also include humans' clothing, hair, even human respiratory tracts, as people can carry viruses or bacteria without getting an infection from them. Veterinary equipment often gets shared between barns, including stethoscopes, endoscopes, and needles or syringes (which may be shared within a barn by a trainer or groom).
Lopez said people who don't groom or ride horses can also move disease around the backstretch, including maintenance crews and hay/feed delivery personnel — especially if they've been around horses on other properties that same day. Lopez even suggested these personnel consider wearing plastic booties to avoid exposing pathogens on their shoes to the backstretch.
“What I want you to remember about this presentation is that the most important part of biosecurity is isolating a sick animal early, quarantining its contacts, and stopping movement of animals and associated people, equipment, feed, manure as soon as possible to contain that infection,” she said.
A few of Lopez's suggestions for minimizing disease exposure included big picture concepts and small things that can make a big difference:
- Requiring proper feed storage to keep away wildlife who may carry disease. If a sick horse is in quarantine, separating feed and other supplies (like liniments, medications, etc.) that come in multi-dose containers to avoid having one person dipping into it for sick and healthy horses
- Ensuring good manure disposal, since manure can also attract wildlife
- Consider trailers bringing horses to the track as potential carriers of disease, particularly regarding manure (even the manure or dirt in a horse's feet)
- Asking jockeys to maintain separate boots/gloves/workout gear for horses they may exercise off the property in the mornings
- Letting barn staff know that dunking the end of a hose in a bucket while filling it can result in contaminating the hose nozzle as it moves between buckets
- Discouraging staff from using the same wheelbarrow for feed and manure
- Encouraging separate, labeled halters and grooming implements for sick horses
- Require horse identifiers to wash hands or change gloves between horse handling
- Clean and disinfect the starting gate periodically
One of the most important elements of a good biosecurity program, however, is tracking and controlling movement around the facility. Ideally, Lopez prefers tracks only have one or two entry points for horse vans and that officials keep tabs on which horses come and go, and when. Sick or isolated horses should have a log book so it's easy to trace who has been around them and trace where else that person has been.
“From the moment a horse steps off the trailer somebody should be there to collect certificates of vet inspection, look at it before it gets into the barn,” she told the audience.
But some racing officials in attendance said the veterinarian's suggestions just aren't practical – especially the idea security guards should log horses in and out each time they go through the gates.
“We have security guards that work the gates and it's the guards that usually check the horses in,” said John Wayne, executive director of the Delaware Thoroughbred Racing Commission. “I don't know any guards, unless they've got a background in equine medicine, they don't know a sick horse from a well horse unless it's oozing saliva or something. I think you're asking too much of these entry level employees to be able to make that determination. We do have three vets at the track but they're here during racing hours and these horses ship in, a lot of times, 7 or 8 at night.”
Other stewards agreed.
“These are guidelines, just things to get your mind working. I recognize that some of it may not always be practical,” Lopez said.
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