When a trainer puts in a successful claim on a horse, they can summon the animal's pedigree, race history, and recorded workouts with a few taps of the iPhone—but one record that doesn't come up, even when the horse moves into the barn, is its medical record.
Legally, an animal's medical history belongs to its owner, but a change in ownership of the animal does not result in a change in ownership of the records—meaning a previous owner and trainer do not have to disclose to a new owner what they did with the horse if they don't want to. At last month's Grayson-Jockey Club Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit, trainer Gary Contessa expressed frustration with the lack of medical records disclosure in the claiming game.
“Nobody wants you to know anything about the horse before you claim them. Understood. But the day you claim that horse, why can't you get that horse's vet records and know what's been done to him?” asked Contessa.
“I get a horse who can't talk to me, can't communicate, can't tell me what's hurting him, I don't even know what's been done to him. Now he's in my barn and four weeks from now, I've got to get him to win.”
Veterinarians are in a tricky position as a result of the law, since they don't have the authority to release information without the client's express permission. Veterinarian Dr. Jeff Berk of Equine Medical Associates in Lexington, Ky., said that the issue causes more problems on some backstretches than on others. Berk worked for a practice which he estimated served 95 percent of one track's trainers and there was relatively little claiming action. Although owners and trainers didn't have copies of medical records, veterinarians were familiar enough with each horse's needs to keep care consistent—a particularly important point for procedures like corticosteroid joint injections, which should not be done too frequently or close together.
At larger tracks where there is more claiming activity, Berk said owners are entering into murky territory.
“It's a challenge, when you claim a horse, because you're entering into the unknown,” he said. “The indiscriminate use of medication means that when you claim a horse, that medication may or may not have been helping that horse. You don't know.”
Contessa is interested in the equine passport system in Europe, under which a book with medical records must follow the horse throughout its life. The system is designed primarily to stop the flow of riding horses into meat plants by tracking the medications administered to a horse, especially drugs like phenylbutazone that are not approved for human consumption. Those riding or transporting a horse without a passport can be fined a significant sum. Horse welfare advocates in Great Britain have asserted in recent years, however, that the system is not working. The country has 75 organizations approved to issue passports, making it easy to create a fraudulent one.
Horsemen agree that there should be some system in place to transfer records in the event of a sale or claim. Owner Bill Casner said the lack of information leaves farm managers in a black hole, as many don't know the recent vaccination history of a weanling or yearling. He would like to see the sharing of information become a mandatory practice, especially at the racetrack.
“There will naturally be a pushback from the trainers not wanting anyone to know what they are administering to the horse,” said Casner. “To me, it is black and white and in the best interest of the horse's health and welfare, which is in the best interest of our industry.”
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