Ten weeks after introducing significant reforms in California aimed at reducing racing fatalities and improving the safety and welfare of horses and riders, The Stronach Group is now requiring all entries at Santa Anita to be accompanied by a pre-race exam form, signed by a trainer's veterinarian and stating that a horse has no known issues that would preclude it from racing.
The new form was introduced by Dr. Dionne Benson, recently hired as The Stronach Group's chief veterinary officer, during an informational conference call for Thoroughbred Owners of California members. Also participating in the call was the management team from The Stronach Group, led by chairman Belinda Stronach; TOC president Greg Avioli; California Thoroughbred Trainers president Jim Cassidy; and Josh Rubinstein, chief operating officer of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.
A variety of subjects was discussed on the call, organized to provide TOC members an update on industry response to the 23 fatalities at Santa Anita from Dec. 26 through March 31, and the three fatalities from May 17-26 that followed an extraordinarily safe seven weeks or racing and training.
“We have been working with the veterinarians that work for the owners and the trainers,” Benson said. “One of the things that we have heard – and you hear unfortunately too frequently when we have a catastrophic injury – is a veterinarian say I've never actually seen that horse, I've never watched that horse, I'm not familiar with that horse. So in order to avoid that scenario, we have asked the veterinarians, and they have agreed, to examine horses prior to entry.”
The language on the form states: “I have examined the above horse(s) and found it to be sound at the trot and I am unaware of any issues that would preclude it from entering to race.”
The examination by a trainer's private veterinarian is in addition to the pre-race exam of all horses on the morning of a race, conducted by a regulatory veterinarian.
“Really the idea here is to get one more opportunity for intervention, one more set of eyes on these horses,” Benson continued. “Someone who potentially has a lot more information and a lot more candid relationship with a trainer and may get more information than a regulatory vet or an association vet. … It's one more opportunity to keep the horses safe.”
Benson said The Stronach Group is also pushing for more transparency of veterinary records.
“We are trying to get to a point where if you as an owner purchase or claim a horse, you get an idea of the important health history of that horse: things like vaccination history, surgery, deworming – those things that will help you manage the horse better. It includes things like corticosteroid injections, radiographs, ultrasound, shockwave. Just allowing you and your trainer to better understand that horse so you're not just getting a blank slate.”
The reforms instituted in March, Benson said, are working. They include pushing the interarticular administration of corticosteroids to 14 days prior to a race and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories to 48 hours from 24 hours. Benson said since that program and other safety protocols went in place in mid-March, more than 121,000 works, gallops and races have taken place on the Santa Anita main track and that there have been three fatalities – a marked improvement and likely a lower fatality rate than other North American tracks.
She also spoke briefly about the $500,000 investment the company is making in a PET scan that will be at Santa Anita. The cutting-edge technology developed at the University of California-Davis could go a long way toward identifying emerging problems in a horse's fetlock joint.
“I've been in this business 50 years now,” said Cassidy, president of the trainers' association, “and I've never seen anybody do more for these horses than The Stronach Group has done right now, as far as trying to protect them.”
Rubinstein said Del Mar, whose summer meet opens on July 17, will continue the medication and safety protocols established at Santa Anita in March. In addition, he said, Del Mar is hiring more veterinarians to observe morning training, enhancing stable security, launching a “see something, say something” program in the stable area to anonymously report suspicious activity and forming a stakeholder advisory committee.
Stronach applauded the manner in which different industry groups have worked together to put safety and welfare “at the center of everything we do” in response to increased scrutiny from local, state and federal lawmakers, animal rights groups, the news media and general public.
“We've come together as an industry, really taken this very, very seriously and we know that the focus and all eyes are on us,” she said. “We are very serious about these reforms.”
During a question and answer session with TOC members, Avioli addressed the possibility of a statewide ballot initiative to end racing – something he called a “complex process” – and explained why animal rights groups have been invited to participate in discussions over reforms.
“The organizations we have dealt with on a daily basis, PETA and the Humane Society, have not come out in favor of a ballot initiative to eliminate racing,” Avioli said. “It's daunting. Animal welfare, animal rights organizations have a much larger membership base in California than does the horse racing industry broadly defined. So our strategy is to work with their leaders. And their leaders, whether it is the Humane Society or PETA, don't always say things that are very nice about us, and they definitely don't always agree with what we do. But we have engaged them at every level, and we are going to continue to do that. Our resources are not the same as their resources.”
Avioli said California's Thoroughbred population has declined significantly since the crisis began earlier this year, from about 3,200 horses at this time in 2018 to the present 2,600. Still, both he and Stronach have resisted calls for racing at Santa Anita to shut down.
“The easy thing would be for us to suspend or close and hope this goes away,” said Stronach. “That would be the easy thing to do. The tougher thing to do, but I believe the right thing, would be to stand together as an industry, work through these reforms, continue to evolve these reforms, to make California racing the safest in the world and to make sure that these reforms are then adopted nationwide in the United States so we have a level playing field that has horse welfare and rider welfare at the center.”
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