When The Stronach Group announced a slate of reforms aimed at improving equine safety and welfare last spring, there wasn't much debate that new policies were needed, but not everyone in horse racing agreed with the list of changes. Dr. Ryan Carpenter, longtime Southern California racetrack surgeon, says that he was one of the skeptics.
Santa Anita isn't the first track to experience a spike in equine fatalities, but it is the first to receive such widespread attention in the mainstream media. Carpenter said it didn't take him long to recognize the track was undergoing such a statistical spike, but at first he thought it would pass. As time went on, it became clear to him that this was new and dangerous territory for horse racing.
“I think if you look back over time, all tracks have gone through clusters, whether it's a cluster of safety or a cluster of injury, clusters happen,” he said. “What you want to see over the years is a decline, and in general we're doing a pretty good job with that. Your blood pressure goes up when you start seeing clusters because you know it's not good, but you also know it's not going to be long-lived.
“When the media and social media jumped onto it, it instantaneously amplified it. That was something nobody expected. There have been various reporters who have written about these issues but it doesn't really gain national or international attention but this time it did. That was really hard to deal with.”
Then the track announced that, among other changes, it would push back administration of non-steroidal anti-inflammatories from 24 hours pre-race to 48 hours before a race or a workout, and intra-articular corticosteroids from seven days to 14 days pre-race. Carpenter had concerns.
“The reforms that were adopted were along the line of the international standards,” he said. “I had some confidence knowing they'd worked with them there. But change is difficult. One of the things I thought was going to be a big deal was the non-steroidals. We've talked about that as an industry for a number of years and we've even looked at, in the past, horses that have had fatalities, do they have a concentration of non-steroidals? But what we found when we looked at these was they don't have any correlation.
“I was a strong proponent of giving horses bute or banamine before their work because I felt these horses are athletes, they train very consistently, they have muscle soreness. This helps them stay in training. I thought that was going to be a hard one, and I'd be looking at more 'sore horses' after their work. The reality is, there's been no difference. Those horses do just fine.
“It's a complete change in perspective but I've adopted the perspective, which is exactly the opposite of before, which is if this horse needs bute or banamine to be working, should they be working? And the answer is no. They shouldn't. They should go through a diagnostic protocol, a treatment plan should be implemented. That's what they need.”
Now, Carpenter said he's the first one to tell other industry insiders: those changes were not only workable, they were a good thing.
“Change is hard. It's hard for anybody,” he said. “It was hard for us, but having gone through it, being six months down the road on the other side, it's not something to be afraid of.”
In a recent meeting of the American Association of Equine Practitioners racing committee, one examining veterinarian in California noted a change in the mindset of trainers, grooms and others on the backstretch – they want him to be as cautious as necessary when deciding whether their horse should run that day. Carpenter said he has noticed the same thing. Nobody wants to lose a horse and then have the tragedy compounded by becoming the next headline.
Carpenter echoed the concern of trainers earlier this fall – that racing in California must adapt or die. He worries about the push and pull between two realities: that the racing industry can't guarantee zero racing fatalities, and the public seems to expect it.
“That's where I think as an industry we've failed, because we've told the world that we can [get the number to zero],” he said. “I don't think that as a veterinarian, my job is to eliminate risk. My job is to minimize risk. I need to do everything I possibly can to minimize risk.
“I don't think anybody out there expects anyone to live a perfect life. They expect you to do the best you can. That's a target we can hit.”
Carpenter, who is a California native, said the climate beyond the backstretch at Santa Anita has changed. When people outside the business ask what he does for a living, he tells them that he's a veterinarian who works on horses, not that he's a racetrack veterinarian practicing at Santa Anita, which is known in the local community now as 'the place with all the dead horses.' He said he has chosen to make his living in the state. He and his wife have family close by. They've raised their two children there. California is home. He doesn't want to move his business to another state, and he doesn't want to see thousands of people put out of work if a ballot initiative banning the sport were to come up.
“If anybody believes this is not an industry problem but a California problem, they're lying to themselves,” he said. “God forbid, if California racing went away, it would be a domino effect.
“If I told you I didn't have that stress in my life today, I'd be lying. This industry is a very big industry. There's a lot of moving parts. People expect instantaneous results in a world where you can't create them. I can tell you I've sat down at the dinner table with my wife and told her, 'I don't know if we're going to survive this, if we're going to get shut down one way or another.' But we're going to do the best we can for our horses until they tell us we can't anymore.”
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