Hogan Warns Trainers Against ‘One Last Race’ Syndrome

by | 08.25.2017 | 11:36am
Dr. Patricia Hogan speaking at Equine Advocates 2013 American Equine Summit

Horsemen gathered at the Fasig-Tipton pavilion in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. last week to learn more about aftercare as part of New York's continuing education requirement for licensed trainers. Dr. Patty Hogan, equine surgeon and founder of Hogan Equine Clinic at Fair Winds Farm in New Jersey, explained both the necessity of retiring Thoroughbreds and signs a trainer can look for to know when it's time for a horse to leave the track.

The trainer continuing education program requires a certain number of completed CE hours, rather than specific courses, and a sizable portion of the audience were representatives from aftercare organizations or owners.

Hogan said there are three primary situations that should prompt a trainer to retire a horse, two of which are obvious and one of which is trickier to assess. When a horse is untalented for racing, it's both clear to most trainers and not a fixable issue. Similarly, when a horse suffers a serious injury that makes it unlikely for him return to his previous level of racing, it's clearly time for retirement. Where trainers can run into problems is deciding when a horse with chronic issues needs to find a second career.

In many cases, she worries trainers can fall prey to what she calls ‘One Last Race Syndrome.'

“That's where the horse is racing and has a problem but there's one last check, one last race they think they can make,” Hogan said, noting one last race can sometimes make the difference between retiring with lots of second career possibilities, and retiring with very few if the horse suffers more damage. “When we're dealing with this it's mostly older horses, claiming horses that have something going on on x-ray and we know they're vulnerable.”

Besides limiting second career options (and therefore, making them difficult and more expensive to rehome), horses with chronic issues limiting performance is also more likely to be at increased risk for on-track breakdown. Hogan said stress fractures are a common finding among Thoroughbreds in her practice, but that doesn't mean they are always obvious to a trainer's eye. Advanced imaging like bone scans and MRI can reveal issues in bone and soft tissue which can hide from radiographs or conventional soundness exams. Researchers are currently working to identify biomarkers in blood that could show veterinarians when inflammation is present in the body, before it becomes visible to the naked eye.

Hogan also believes owners need to be thinking more about aftercare, well before they have to consider it for their horse. She presented examples of two horses, one that had an orthopedic stress injury at a young age and got appropriate treatment, and one that was diagnosed with a lingering knee issue but whose ownership declined surgery. The first horse ran for years, ultimately with a mild case of arthritis at retirement, while the second was eventually forced into retirement by the knee problem, which had worsened significantly. In her experience, owners interested in flipping the horse for profit, or running low-value claiming horses are less likely to invest the funds in surgery to treat stress injuries because the treatment may cost more than the horse.

Although some trainers may not give it much thought, Hogan said they should also think twice about sending a chronic bleeder out for a refresher and bringing the horse back to the races. Some horses with repeated episodes of Exercise-Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage suffer scarring in the lungs which predisposes them to future episodes, likely limiting their performance abilities. Fortunately, this scarring does not appear to impact breathing for lower-intensity sports.

“They bleed from a very particular spot. It's always the back upper quadrant [of the lungs], and over time they get scar tissue there, and they get hematomas,” said Hogan. “Those horses can do so much if they're also sound horses.”

Hogan also warned trainers about sourcing their own aftercare solutions. As of 2009, the New York Racing Association has had the power to pull stalls or refuse entries from trainers whose horses end up in the slaughter pipeline. No matter how trustworthy an individual may seem, Hogan said people who show up on the backstretch looking for horses – especially horses with soundness problems – may not have the kindest or most thorough long-term plans for them.

“Unsound horses, I can guarantee you, will slip through the cracks,” Hogan said. “If you have an unsound horse you're trying to give away, it's going to end up in a bad place.”

Hogan presented her ‘wish list' of changes she hopes to see to improve Thoroughbred aftercare. Included on the list: transfer of veterinary records along with ownership, more critical pre-race inspection, a transfer fee funding aftercare for each one of a horse's ownership changes, and more affordable, available euthanasia options for horses that need it. The latter, Hogan said, is something people usually don't want to talk about.

“That is an option sometimes,” she said. “It is far better to euthanize a horse that's chronically lame and can't go anywhere. It's a hard question but sometimes a good option.”

One more thing on her list: for horsemen to stop referring to horses surrendered to aftercare programs as “donations.” As panelists noted earlier in the week in a session on aftercare at Equestricon, programs like ReRun, New Vocations, and others usually spend more on a horse than they make back in adoption fees. Giving them one more mouth to feed is the right thing to do for the horse, but it's not exactly doing organizations a favor unless the horse comes along with a check to help cover his expenses while he awaits adoption.

In the social media age, Hogan said it's more important than ever to put the horse's welfare first. The public is not only more removed from an agricultural society than ever before, they're more removed from horses than ever, and more likely to view them as pets than livestock. That view comes along with a lot of anthropomorphism, and higher tempers than ever before if a horse's welfare is in question. Beyond concerns about public perception, Hogan pointed out that taking care of horses is only fair for those whose businesses depend on them.

“This is not charity,” said Hogan. “This is an obligation we all have. We all make a living off the backs of the horses, and we all have an obligation to make sure they move on to something else.”  

  • delmarla

    Thank you Dr Patty Hogan! Keep educating the owners and trainers! I had asked an owner to stop on his Unbridled Song getting beat for $2500 claiming and give him to me so he can have a second career. Instead they kept running him until he fractured his knee. It’s taken 3 years of rest and easy work to get this horse sound, and with filling in that knee he’s lucky to be traveling sound.

  • Lina_TX

    Outstanding presentation! I cringe every time somebody announces a retirement after one more race. It far too often does not end well for the horse.

  • R.A.C.E. Fund, Inc.

    Thank you Dr. Hogan for speaking up for the horses and educating horsemen. However, the long term sanctuary horses that cannot go on to a second career but are pasture sound must still be addressed and supported as they deserve as much funding and support as horses that can retrain for a second career.

  • A great article! Years and years ago I offered a trainer twice the killer price for a horse with ankles bigger than grapefruits, who was headed to the killers. Trainer refused, and admitted his concern that I might get him to win a race. I only wanted him for a riding horse. Didn’t matter. There are a lot of things about trainers that are far from positive, and getting one more race out of a horse they know cannot win is just one of them.

  • Mindy

    “running low-value claiming horses are less likely to invest the funds in surgery to treat stress injuries because the treatment may cost more than the horse.”
    the treatment, and even the diagnosis, such as the above mentioned, “Advanced imaging like bone scans and MRI can reveal issues in bone and soft tissue which can hide from radiographs or conventional soundness exams.”

  • Mindy

    “more affordable, available euthanasia options for horses that need it. The latter, Hogan said, is something people usually don’t want to talk about. “That is an option sometimes,” she said. “It is far better to euthanize a horse that’s chronically lame and can’t go anywhere. It’s a hard question but sometimes a good option.”
    much better than some sicko squeezing one last dime out of a horse, by selling them to slaughter

    also, reproducing (pardon the pun) and funding the ‘gelding clinics’ that travel around, would be helpful

  • Mindy

    “One more thing on her list: for horsemen to stop referring to horses surrendered to aftercare programs as “donations.””
    THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU! I’ve said that for YEARS! unless the horse comes with a check, it’s a “dump,” not a “donation,” granted, it’s a dump with a better chance to end up in a good place, but they’re still dumping some’thing’ that can no longer make them money, and depending on the generosity of others

  • Mindy

    “This is not charity,” said Hogan. “This is an obligation we all have. We all make a living off the backs of the horses, and we all have an obligation to make sure they move on to something else.”
    AMEN! speaking uncomfortable truths to power, thank you so much, Dr. Hogan, if I’d have been there, it’d have been all I could do, to not stand up and cheer loudly, for every point you made!

  • 1bud2

    Thank you Dr. Hogan – my husband was a trainer for more than 30 years & I also became his assistant when he developed an ultimately terminal illness. When horses were developing issues – I could not, in good conscience continue on by any means possible, especially joint injections in older horses. I found homes for many but was not beyond euthanizing those that
    may just be sold to the “killers” if they were too unsound and could not be repurposed. In one
    instance, a filly that had been claimed from me(a homebred) was running on the bottom on an east coast track & a jock friend went to ride her at a another track from where we were stabled. He told me the day after she ran, she won , on nothing but heart. His agent knew the owner & gave me his phone number & I called and offered to buy and retire her for $1,000….could have her picked up the next day – before cell phone connections & asked he call & leave a message if he would sell……he did, along with his address to mail a check & said papers would be with her. She was pretty sad – bedded on shavings/sawdust that was imbedded in open sores on her hocks. Had a good friend with a farm in SC who had a good neighbor that wanted her & bred her to a local stallion just to have a foal and eventually a riding horse. She had so much heart she would have run until she snapped a leg. More people need a conscience…….we know these animals often have way too much heart which can lead to their ultimate demise.

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