It's a story as old as radiography itself.
An auction prospect comes to the sales grounds with a mild to moderate imperfection on its x-rays, potential buyers flee at the sight of a less-than-pristine vet report, the horse hammers for less than hoped-for, and then it goes on to become an elite runner.
Obviously, not every sale prospect with an OCD or sesamoiditis on its radiograph is a perfectly sound superstar in the making. However, the growth of social media has spread these stories from word of mouth around the barns to something that's broadcast around the world, and anecdotally, it's proven that a great horse can be more than what its early x-rays might predict.
In a social media discussion earlier this year, Mark Taylor of Taylor Made Sales Agency said the list of the consignment's Grade 1-winning graduates could just as easily be titled the “Failed Vetting Poster.”
“I look at all their x-ray reports, and I can tell you, it ain't pretty,” he said, “and a lot of times the conformation notes aren't pretty – short in the neck, back in the knee, blah, blah, blah, and he wins the Breeders' Cup.”
If a perfect vet report isn't a prerequisite for a superstar racehorse, then why does the buying bench appear less forgiving than ever toward those imperfections? The answers can vary from horse to horse and from buyer to buyer. Taylor said one cause has been advances in radiograph technology creating more things to be afraid of, even if they're ultimately superficial.
“Every time the x-ray machine gets five percent more powerful, you start seeing things that nobody's ever seen before, and everybody freaks out about it,” he said. “Then there's a five-year curve where everyone runs from those horses, and then it comes back to the center where everyone says it's no big deal. If you were in that five-year window, you lost money. I remember OCDs in the hocks, people would run for the hills. Now they say it's no big deal.”
When the OCD scare calmed down, a new boogeyman took its place.
“One trend I've noticed was the sudden appearance and evil nature of sesamoiditis,” said Meg Levy of Bluewater Sales. “I don't know if sesamoiditis is a growth thing or the result of running on hard ground, but all of a sudden when those digital x-rays came out, people were seeing images that were so darn clear that you couldn't compare them to what we had before.”
The buyer's intention for a young horse can also play a large part in how much can be forgiven when it comes to x-rays. Dr. Jeff Berk, president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, said that people who are buying to resell typically place more emphasis on certain radiographic findings than people who are purchasing to race.
The reasons for this are twofold. First, a horse with no findings on its radiographic report stands a better chance to have a clean report when presented at the next sale. Second, for 2-year-old pinhookers working against the schedule of an upcoming sale calendar, there might not be time to properly correct and rehabilitate those issues while also training the horse with enough intensity to perform competitively at an under-tack show.
“The research shows that horses found to have moderate sesamoiditis as yearlings perform comparably on the racetrack to horses without seasmoiditis during their 3-year-old racing season, but as 2-year-olds, their racing performance was not equal to their peers without sesamoiditis,” Berk said. “But, that is not the primary concern for people that are trying to buy to re-sell. They need to take that horse and put it into training right away, and the proper management of a horse with sesamoiditis is to delay training and not move them forward quickly. Those horses need additional time.
“Horses that are trained up to a 2-year-old sale are not trained the same way as horses that are being trained to race, so you can see that the same horse may be suitable for one buyer with a certain purpose and not suitable for another buyer with a different purpose, even though it's the same horse with the same findings,” he continued.
The question then becomes what can buyers, sellers, and veterinarians do to better educate themselves and each other about what's going on how radiographic findings affect the performance of horses, and which findings can be accepted.
Berk said part of the solution is research, some of which is taking place now.
“In this case, a lot of these are retrospective studies where we have an accumulation of radiographic findings, and then we follow these horses and analyze their race records, including number of starts, how early they started, number of wins, amount of money won, age, etc., put all that information together, and try to assess the significance of that finding based upon how it affects the horses' racing performance,” he said. “There is currently a research project being conducted by the Colorado State University Center for Orthopaedic Research studying sesamoiditis and associated suspensory branch disease that will attempt to make correlations between what we're seeing in the repository and how that's going to affect these horses down the line.”
Both Taylor and Levy were supportive of statistical analysis to prove how minor radiograph imperfections ultimately affect racetrack performance, but both consignors wanted to see that taken a step further into deeper introspection and review on the parts of individual veterinarians to better advise their clients in the future.
“The vets' jobs aren't to be bloodstock agents and follow racing,” Taylor said. “They write this stuff down on these sale horses, and most of them don't read the Racing Form every day, and go back and say, 'How many of these in the fifth race in Saratoga did I vet?' and then go back and see what they said about them and how many times they ran. They don't have time to do that. That's not a criticism, that's just a fact.”
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