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.  

  • Ben van den Brink

    A mess hole.

  • condor

    Race them till they die. Sickening

  • kcbca1

    The racing industry continues to fail at working as a whole to eliminate these horrendous practices. I certainly want nothing to do with any track or sport that allows this to happen. Then, when practical reform comes around such as the Barr- Tonko legislation it has to be shoved down a number of people’s throats. I’m not saying that has anything to do with this situation but just another example of how the industry finds a way to shoot itself in the foot consistently. I am just so sick of it.

  • Michael Castellano

    Excellent article. Makes me wonder if this year’s Aqueduct Winter Meet will be another disaster.

  • johnnyknj

    I and others have been lobbying for years to make the vets list public and posted online for each track. NYRA, to their credit, did so and the list can now be found on the “Horsemen” section of their site. Other tracks, evidently protecting the interests of those who want to keep this information from horseman and the public, will not do so. There is no good reason this information should not be readily available. It can only protect horses, riders, and the betting public. Secrecy only protects those who want to run and pass off unsound horses. Further, when a horse is a “vet scratch” differentiate between a State Vet scratch because the horse did not pass the vet check, and a private vet scratch. This information is in the system and would be simple to add to the Equibase reports. Again, it can only help protect horses and people. The Jockey Club can get it done quickly. No excuses.

  • SteveG

    In my opinion, this is Natalie’s best writing on a subject that I’m sure had her stomach churning. It’s very difficult to keep the outrage in abeyance in service to getting the story out so well. Maximum impact in an understated way. Very well done.

  • Greg Skelton

    We need to change the industry! It’s time for a drastic change! We need to push towards only letting horses that volunteer for competition be allowed to race. We need to work on thoroughly explaining the risks associated with racing to these animals before their request to compete is accepted.

    • Hamish

      Wise guy.

    • Jean McC

      I thumbed-up in error! Need to get it off! If experiences like this continue, there will be no racing industry.

    • Northern Dancer

      It was time for a drastic change 20 years ago, but continued lip service, and inaction has led to the current pathetic state of horse racing in North America.

  • Lost In The Fog – Robert Lee

    The quotes in the above article from trainer Robert Lucas are disgusting, sickening, deplorable and morally bankrupt. I’m truly disgusted!

  • FourCats

    As someone who has owned a few racehorses, I don’t understand why anyone would knowingly run an unsound horse (even despite it being completely unethical). They can’t think that the horse is going to be competitive. His/her soundness will prevent that. And even if the horse does manage to overcome the unsoundness for that race, the continuing damage will make running that horse just stupid by ruining that horse’s future. So what is gained? Getting the horse claimed? If that is the reason, the solution is really very simple (though major). Eliminate claiming races. Ensure that the ownership of a horse is always the same both before the race and after. Make races competitive by assigning horses a handicap value of some kind with only horses of similar values allowed to compete against each other by carding restricted races. And there are many other ways to enable people to buy or sell a horse easily without having the sale associated with a race. The industry could even set up some sort of buy/sell database for racehorses where a horse can be “claimed” off of the database but that “claim” is not tied to a race.

    • Erin Casseday

      Interesting thoughts….

    • WT

      Good ideas. Never liked the claiming game.

    • Quinnbt

      That is called greyhound racing.

  • Hamish

    So many things to do better……

  • Hopefieldstables

    Gina, it is even more asinine when you consider that the horse broke down after only 2 furlongs. What a moron.

  • kim

    Terrible for the Jockey, the bettor and the horse. This trainer is confirmation of whats bad with horseracing.

  • Racing Fan

    Reason 5,689,654,143,975 we need a central governing body.

  • Sue Kawczynski

    Lucas is despicable … he is everything wrong with the sport. Ban him for life – he doesn’t belong near a horse.

  • Ben van den Brink

    There is just one solution to these kind of things, Social Media

  • Jack Frazier

    California has very tough rules on horses once they are on the vet’s list. First, you have to wait a period of time before they can be entered again depending on why they were scratched and can be 10 days, 30 days, 60 days or longer. Why Arizona and other venues would not check is reprehensible. It is online at the CHRB website and is easily accessible, but sometimes it is not timely placed on this list. There are a lot of things wrong with this idea of racing a horse before it has been taken off the list or retired.

  • Al

    Very good article. Hopefully the Jockey Club and states can repair the fractured relationship that exists between tracks and states but their track record leaves many doubts.

  • Thinker

    I would like to thank Natalie for bringing to light a problem that has taken FAR TOO LONG to be bought to the public’s attention. Turf Paradise has notoriously bought horses from California that were unable to race there and started them in Arizona only to have them break down. And I am sick of watching it happen. I have stopped going to the races for that reason. Filling the starting gate is right on and as a privately owned track, Simms does what he pleases with little knowledge or regard for the horses. Blame should also fall on the vet and his advisors. Please check the records for horses that have broken down on race days since the meet opened. Please check the mornings as well if those are available. I watched them take 15 minutes to put down a quarter mare that had broken both front legs after a race in front of the clubhouse. They have NO EDUCATION on what to do when an event like this happens and many stood by and watched her struggle. If you wonder why I did not assist my company would not let me. One of the most horrific sights I have ever seen and it happened in front of the public. I will never attend another race and for those of you who say or believe that happens in horse racing understand it doesn’t have to and when it does an educated crew and a timely response would make the suffering minimal. I am a licensed racing exercise rider and will never set foot on the backside again. Back to the races for me, the weather isn’t worth it.

    • Joan and Fred

      It seems like you went through an experience very much like ours. In 2004 after many years we finally became licensed to gallop horses legally on racetracks in our state through much persistence, despite the outrider license approver stating ” this track doesn`t want anymore riders.” We finally became able to gallop horses with passion and go as fast as a willing horse could go. We found only two horses that were safe enough to do that with! One of the poor horses we rode who was from California, was DEAD lame at a walk, but remarkably could gallop on the track. We always galloped him as slow and easy as we could as we felt for him while the uncaring horse people all sneered or laughed. Later that horse was given an injection to his left carpal joint so as to pass the paddock exam to race.

      Fortunately Rocky didn`t breakdown in the race but after a couple of weeks he was dead lame again at a walk after the injection wore off. In 2005 we left our local track and will not go there even to watch the races ever again! The land surrounding the place is worth between 1 million to 10 million an acre and we told the old card playing horse people the day would come when their track would disappear because the land would be worth too much for the support of a racetrack. They all laughed again and said ” We will find some other rich people to run our track” It is now completely surrounded by commercial development and if it wasn`t for out of state account wagering would have ceased to exist many years ago.We applaud Ray for showing the good, bad and ugly side of the racing industry. We fervently hope the industry is cleaned up as there is no more beautiful thing to see as when horses are running. This is an Oregon State University graduate`s experience within the industry who earned the monies for their education by starting under saddle many thoroughbreds for the track.

  • whirlaway

    Meet Robert Lucas a real loser or as my husband says there are some real snake oil salesman in this game. But where are the owners
    that don’t know what is going on with your trainer, that is your right
    and your responsibiliy. Maybe this is not the game for any of you.

  • WT

    Lucas is a really good liar. He should quit training and get into politics.

  • Genellen

    Lucas should be ruled off every racetrack in this country, and beyond. What a disgusting individual. A real creep. “He was a sweet soul”? Yeah, there are lots of those. Some of them end up in the hands of real incompetents.

    Racing MUST have a uniform set of rules and regulations. No “it’s good here, but not there.” WHEN is this sport going to do something about this?

  • Barbara Bowen

    I have never read a story on PR that deserved the W T F Award more than this one. Ever. That is not a horseman, Lucas is a butcher sans a brain. And there are far too many just like him.

  • 33horses

    I met this trainer and he talked a really good story. I even gave him a horse just so i could get some breeders awards because I couldn’t afford to run him myself. Long story short, “He wouldn’t stand up to training.” Found out later through the grapevine, he is a butcher! So Sad, so sorry

    • JerseyGirl

      Yeah! He sure talked a good con game, unfortunate for the J. RIP beauty! Hope all around get their just rewards for the tragic demise of Time for a J.

  • Noelle

    National regulation and national standards are desperately needed.

    Great job, Natalie. Keep it up. I’ve been following racing since 2007 and have seen virtually no progress in reforming the sport. There have been hearings and meetings and conferences and initiatives galore, but nothing changes. It’s discouraging.

  • x

    horse racing should be ended. no horse – no animal – deserves this. i don’t care how nice keeneland makes it seem.

    • Noelle

      I disagree. Horseracing can and should be reformed, not ended. It actually IS nice at Keeneland and could be equally nice throughout the country.

      Racing’s problems are many and complicated, but they can be solved. A good start would be adoption of the Barr-Tonko bill.

      • Northern Dancer

        No the Barr-Tonko bill is controlled by the industry. This will be the same thing that is going on now just a different name.
        What is needed is the USADA for full NEUTRAL oversight of the drug testing procedures in horse racing.

  • Superb job by Natalie (her best piece yet). Thank goodness for the Paulick Report. Where else would be get stuff like this?

  • Greg J.

    Mr. Allred, Robert Lucas has three entered Saturday, why not do the right thing and ban this man? As a jockey told me tonight that he is only there to fill the races, doing the right thing sure as hell is more important, is it not?

  • Christine Janks

    There are no real advocates for the horses. The financial incentive for the track , who pays track veterinarian , the owner and the trainer is to race the horse as often as possible and year round racing has eliminated any down time. For the most part , for a horse to even get on the vet’s list , it has to be really unsound. Then 10 to 30 days later, in some places a week later they can breeze to get off. Breezing when they should be resting and healing. And in most cases, can and do breeze with more medication than allowed for the race. The problem is less with no reciprocal information as with the way the very system works and for most lameness a far insufficient down time.
    As Dr Arthur has stated ( paraphrase) ” the incidence of a horse breaking down on the track is largely determined by who it’s trainer is”.

  • Bellwether

    So sorry Time for a J got caught up in the greedy,dark, and abusive side of ‘The Game’… “Bless His Sweet Soul”…

  • Bellwether

    This story is a stone cold heart breaker and think of the many we never hear about…Thanks to the PR for this story as this (Exposure) is what will help change this ‘Animal Abuse’ in Horse racing sooner than later…

  • Northern Dancer

    I also blame the racing commission for being a mere puppet for trainers to enter, and race lame horses who are at high risk of breaking down. This horse was failed by every step in the system. Sadly, there are many more who are being failed by an industry who is inactive for progressive change. I don’t mean merely talking, committees or lip service that has been going on for 20+ years because not much has changed.
    Not only is a central racing commissioner desperately needed, but NEUTRAL oversight. By neutral oversight I mean people handling, and controlling the collection and testing of drug tests that are NOT involved in the industry in any capacity.
    Right now we have owners of racetracks, racetrack CEO’s, possibly people on racing commission boards owning, and running racehorses in the very jurisdiction that they oversee. This is total conflict of interest.
    I support the USADA to control the entire drug testing process. It sure is better than the system that is in place now.

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