Time For A Change? Veterinarian’s List No Safe Harbor For Racehorses

by | 11.18.2015 | 12:01pm

On Jan. 27, 2015, six Thoroughbreds went to the post for the second race at Turf Paradise, but only five came back. Four-year-old Time for a J fractured the sesamoids in his left front leg and was euthanized on the track.

What separated the dark bay gelding from most other horses who meet the same sad fate is that he had been officially identified as unsound before he entered the gates on that January afternoon. It was a red flag that at least one trainer and multiple racetrack officials chose to ignore — all completely within the bounds of Arizona state law.

On Oct. 4, 2014, the horse had been entered in a claiming event at Los Alamitos but scratched after he failed a pre-race soundness examination that morning. This automatically placed him on the veterinarian's list in California—a status that made it illegal for him to run at any track in the state without demonstrating his condition had been resolved.

Trainer Robert Lucas opted not to go through the regulatory procedures to have the horse removed from the list in California, and instead entered him in a race at Turf Paradise in Phoenix, Ariz., on Nov. 16. Officials there knew, or should have known, the horse's status when they accepted the entry for that race, as well as subsequent entries for Dec. 2, Dec. 29, Jan. 14, and that fateful Jan. 27.

In hindsight, Lucas said he wishes he had kept the horse in California and given Time for a J the vacation he was slated to receive at the end of the Turf Paradise season.


“I wasn't trying to circumvent the rule in California, I just had a lot of horses going to [Arizona],” said Lucas. “I was surprised he got claimed because he had such bad legs. If you looked from his knees down, it was just dreadful. I would have rather had him back [on a voided claim] in a heartbeat.

“In that case, I shouldn't have ran him there, because if I brought him back here, maybe he wouldn't have passed the vet check.”

Lucas recalled that the horse had an old bowed tendon in one front leg, and an old ligament injury in the other. He remembered the gelding as having been sound in October, and suspected the veterinarian who flagged the horse did so due to the appearance of the legs, rather than any active issues.

Time for a J was claimed by trainer Kayna Kemper on behalf of owner Jay Radar after finishing third in his Dec. 29 start. Kemper had been reluctant to claim the horse, even though she said she was never informed by anyone at the racetrack that the horse was on a veterinarian's list in California.

“I didn't think it would turn out the way it did. I worked him, and then I started hearing bad things about him. Word gets around the racetrack,” said Kemper.

In fact, Time for a J's name is still on California's vet list months after his death, alongside 27 other horses who were added for unsoundness in 2014 and ran out of state while still ineligible to start in California.

Those numbers aren't a surprise to Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board.

“There is certainly vet's list shopping,” Arthur said. “People know in California if you have a horse that has a problem that's not going to be corrected, then you're going to have to take your horse elsewhere.

“There are states that are just as tough as California, and then there are states that, frankly, will take anything.”

What is the list?

The veterinarian's list is designed as a safeguard to prevent unsound or unhealthy horses from showing up on the program before they've had a chance to fully recover from the physical issues that put them there. Like so many other areas of Thoroughbred racing regulation, however, there is little uniformity from one state to another. The organization of the list, and requirements for entry and exit, vary from state to state and even track to track.

Per California regulation, horses are subjected to pre-race soundness exams by state-contracted official veterinarians and are observed on-track and in the post-race test barn for signs of unsoundness or illness. If the veterinarian spots anything of concern, the horse goes on the list and any entries for the horse must be rejected by the racing office until he is removed from the list. To be taken off the list, a horse must record a five-furlong workout in front of the official veterinarian, pass a pre-workout soundness exam, and pass a post-workout blood and urine test screening for anti-inflammatory drugs.

Turf ParadiseIn Arizona, the law is less specific. A veterinarian hired by the racetrack performs pre-race examinations and determines whether a horse should be placed on a veterinarian's list. Regulations state that a horse may enter a race in Arizona while on the list if 72 hours have passed since he was placed on the list and the trainer receives permission from track and state veterinarians. Arizona rules do not clearly define the standard process for taking a horse off the list, only that the track veterinarian must be satisfied that the horse's condition has been resolved.

Lucas said Arizona officials did ask him to work Time for a J before allowing his first start in the state due to the horse's status on the California veterinarian's list (though that work does not appear on his record). He said officials did not conduct any post-workout testing, however.

“I did not work him on Bute or anything,” he said. “But I suppose if a guy had a horse who couldn't pass here [in California], they could Bute him up.”

Dr. Scot Waterman, animal medical and welfare advisor to the Arizona Department of Racing, did not respond to calls seeking further detail on standard procedure in the jurisdiction.

A solution already exists

Even though there is no central authority governing the veterinarian's lists, there is a national computer system that simplifies the exchange of information between states. The Jockey Club's InCompass software system is used in nearly all states to perform a variety of tasks from taking entries to paying out purse money, and it includes a component for exchanging veterinarian's lists.

InCompass takes note of the location and the name of the veterinarian who added the horse to a list, and includes a spot for details describing the nature of the horse's condition. That information is then made available to any official using the software, including those in other states.

When the racing office processed Time for a J's entries for each of his starts at Turf Paradise, a pop-up box appeared with the horse's name in red lettering, informing the entry clerk that the horse was on the list in California for unsoundness. The person processing entries that day had to manually override the block to allow the gelding to enter the field.

Laws have not caught up to technology

California rules dictate that a horse on a vet's list in another jurisdiction is not permitted to run at any of the state's racetracks. California is in the minority, however; most state rules do not address reciprocity of veterinarian's lists from other jurisdictions.

The University of Arizona's Racetrack Industry Program compiled a chart of state rules regarding reciprocity, revealing that only six states (California, Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia) include language specifically addressing veterinarian's lists in other states. Most, like Arizona, do not mention outside veterinarian's lists at all, leaving racetracks to combat the problem (or not) independently.

Some tracks are diligent about honoring veterinarian's list status whether or not their state codes require it. Delaware Thoroughbred Racing Commission Chief Veterinarian Dr. John Peters said he's seen more collaboration and trust in recent years between regulators in the Mid-Atlantic region.

“Everybody tries to work together,” he said. “We have a list of all the veterinarians that we deal with, and we talk back and forth if there is a problem. We have an excellent relationship with the others because I have been here a long time and so have most of the other people.”

Other tracks have been slower to come around. Turf Paradise was a few steps behind its eastern cohorts until this racing season, when officials say the track instituted a new house policy.

“As of the 2015-16 season at Turf Paradise, the department's policy is to track horses that come from other states,” said Amanda Jacinto, public relations officer for the Arizona Department of Gaming. “If a horse is on the veterinarian's lists in the state they are coming from, we will not let that horse run in a race in Arizona until it has successfully completed the requirement(s) to be removed from the list from the originating state.”

Pressure

To further complicate matters, the person responsible for adding or removing horses from a veterinarian's list may vary between states, too. Some states require that the list be controlled by a veterinarian hired by the state commission. Others leave that task to a track-employed veterinarian.

For track-employed veterinarians like the ones at Turf Paradise, the task could prove a conflict of interest. In an ideal world, interaction between examining veterinarians and the racing office is minimal, no matter who is signing the paychecks of either party. But John Wayne, executive director of the Delaware Thoroughbred Racing Commission, said that priorities can shift in practice.

Too often, the goal of getting the starting gate as full as possible collides with concerns over equine safety

Too often, the goal of getting the starting gate as full as possible collides with concerns over equine safety

“There are different goals,” said Wayne. “The racing office is trying to get as many horses in the race as possible. Our veterinarians are there to make sure every horse that's in there is healthy, fit, and going to come back safely after the race.”

For a trainer's perspective, pressure from racing secretaries might also lead to risky decisions. Lucas said there are several factors in his plan not to return to Arizona racing this season, but one was the pressure he felt to enter horses in races he wasn't sure were a safe fit for them. He said Time for a J's issues did not place him at risk in races between four and a half and five furlongs, but was talked into running the horse at five and a half in his Dec. 29 race at Turf Paradise.

“You get a lot of pressure from the racing secretary. I didn't want to run him at that distance. He would have been much better going at four and a half [furlongs],” Lucas said.

Additional concerns

Besides the tangled web of state regulation and track policy, the statistical patterns related to a horse's presence on the veterinarian's list are troubling. Research on The Jockey Club's Equine Injury Database by Dr. Tim Parkin of the University of Glasgow indicates that a horse's risk for fatal injury rises somewhere between 250 and 400 percent in its first start off the list, and the risk can remain elevated for weeks or months after the horse begins running again.

A horse that has been on the veterinarian's list is also less likely to make another start than a horse that has not been on the list. Dr. Mary Scollay, equine medical director for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, used the Florida veterinarian's list to study the issue. Between 2000 and 2010, she found that 21.5 percent of horses scratched by regulatory veterinarians for unsoundness never started again.

“I think that's a pretty substantial number,” Scollay said at the 2012 Jockey Club Welfare and Safety Summit. “To me, the high percentage of non-starters post-scratch suggests that in some cases, intervention may be occurring too late.”

Horses on the veterinarian's list also have a higher incidence of drug positives than those that are not on the list. Dr. Rick Arthur reported that 1.9 percent of post-workout blood tests conducted on California horses trying to work their way off the list were above permitted levels for Class 4 or 5 drugs in 2014. The rate of positives in post-race tests overall in California is .5 percent.

Arthur suspects this is not a coincidence.

“My guess would be [the trainers] know they're sore, and they're giving them a little bit extra phenylbutazone, hoping to get by the test,” said Arthur.

Help could be on the way

The Jockey Club, together with the Racing Officials Accreditation Program and a working group of regulatory veterinarians, is in the process of drafting suggested language to help state lawmakers make the lists uniform and reciprocal. The American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) publicly called for reform on the topic at the Jockey Club Round Table earlier in 2015.

Any reforms will come along too late for Time for a J, of course. The factors behind a horse's breakdown are often many and various, so it's hard to say what made the unfortunate difference for him on Jan 27. Lucas thinks it's likely the horse would have passed California's standards eventually, but if he hadn't, he had a retirement gig all lined up.

“I would have loved to have bought him back, because I know I could fix him and run 870 [yards] with him, or make him a pony,” said Lucas. “He was a sweet soul and he didn't need to die.”

It is hard not to imagine, though, that if the system designed to protect him had worked cohesively, he might not have entered the Turf Paradise starting gates in the first place.  

Twitter Twitter
Paulick Report on Instagram