The extensive pre-race veterinary screening process at the Breeders' Cup is good, but it can be better. That's the conclusion from top equine surgeon Dr. Larry Bramlage, who examined the circumstances surrounding the fatal injury of Mongolian Groom in the 2019 Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita.
In a 25-page report released Wednesday, Bramlage noted that the extensive examination procedure had a 99.6 percent accuracy rate (since no other horses suffered fatal injuries on Breeders' Cup weekend) but acknowledged that “there were opportunities to remove Mongolian Groom from competition that were missed due to tie constraints or process deficiencies that could be made more prominent.”
Bramlage reviewed the horse's racing, training and medical records, notes from examining veterinarians throughout his career, and the necropsy report done after Mongolian Groom's death. He spoke with examining and regulatory veterinarians, the horse's connections, and track and Breeders' Cup officials.
Seven regulatory veterinarians looked at the horse a total of ten times ahead of the Breeders' Cup.
A full copy of the report is available here.
Bramlage also reviewed videos of the horse's workouts in the days leading up to the race which were published by XBTV or on social media, which several veterinarians told the Paulick Report in November revealed lameness in the horse's left hind. Bramlage agreed that left hind lameness was visible in a couple of videos, and he revealed one veterinarian observing workouts questioned the horse's soundness in that limb on Oct. 31, but subsequent examinations at the barn could find no detectable lameness. The horse was flagged and underwent additional examinations, several of which noted shortness or choppiness in both hind limbs, but could detect no lameness.
Multiple veterinarians over the course of 2019 had made note of short or choppy movement in the horse's hind end, but these observations were typically not limited to one limb over the other.
The necropsy report revealed that Mongolian Groom had stress fractures in the lower portion of both hind cannon bones, and the bruise on the left hind is what prompted the first in a series of catastrophic fractures at the top of the stretch in the Classic. The horse's connections said he demonstrated no lameness, heat or swelling, and records revealed he did not develop lameness in that leg when flexed during his pre-race examinations.
Bones are constantly undergoing a cycle of microdamage from training/exertion and repair. This cycle helps the skeleton become stronger and is necessary for it to sustain the stress of work. Bramlage writes that the type of bone bruising present in Mongolian Groom happens when this cycle becomes unbalanced, and stress is applied faster than the body can repair it. This does not always result in heat, lameness, swelling, or even presence on radiographs in the early stages, however, which makes it difficult to recognize. This is complicated when a horse has this type of damage bilaterally, in a left and right limb, because they cannot limp off one onto the other.
Pre- and post-race tests for prohibited or restricted medications detected no violation or deviation from the horse's records.
Bramlage had six suggestions for improving the exam system:
- Early identification of horses with “historic indications of concerns” such as prolonged, heavy race schedules or noted abnormalities on examination before ship-in
- Assigning a pair of veterinarians to each horse to get multiple viewpoints but improve their ability to notice changes in a horse day to day
- Better organize workflow for veterinarians observing training, possibly with a designated length of the track where they can watch contenders jog by individually
- Create an area where flagged horses could be jogged or ridden in a circle for examining veterinarians, as this is more likely to reveal lameness than walking or trotting in straight lines
- Require diagnostic imaging in some specific cases as part of pre-race examinations
- Assign a veterinarian to review video footage of horses on track and refer any flagged horses to the examining team
Chairman of the Board of the Breeders' Cup, Fred W. Hertrich III released the following statement on the report:
“The Breeders' Cup is committed to taking all actions to ensure our equine and human athletes compete under the safest and most transparent conditions possible. The Breeders' Cup Board of Directors appreciates Dr. Bramlage's thorough evaluation, and will review Dr. Bramlage's recommendations for improvements to the processes that were in place for the 2019 World Championships and discuss them in detail at the next board meeting for adoption at future events. We will also discuss these recommendations with the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition, so the recommendations will have an even broader and more beneficial impact on our sport and reducing injury to our athletes.”
National Thoroughbred Racing Association president and CEO Alex Waldrop released the following statement about the report:
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