There are countless stories swirling the internet, voicing the hundreds of different opinions on this subject.
We have heard PETA call for an end to all of racing.
And we have heard countless others call for a full assessment of that fickle track.
The 22nd horse broke down yesterday, after one of only a handful of days since training resumed. I read that singular news line and my body just collapsed. The breath escaped from my lungs and my chin sank to my chest.
Because yet again, we are caught doing too little. Yet again, we are caught unprepared. Yet again, we find ourselves on the defensive.
And any good coach will tell you that the best place to be is with the ball in your own court. We don’t have that.
And to the dismay of so many, it appeared that the Stronach Group tried. They sent out a press release, describing what they were implementing (at only two of their own tracks) in an effort to fix this catastrophe of catastrophic injury. And this is what they outlined:
- Banning the use of Lasix.
- Increasing the ban on legal therapeutic NSAIDS, joint injections, shockwave therapy, and anabolic steroids.
- Complete transparency of all veterinary records.
- Significantly increasing out-of-competition testing.
- Increasing the time required for horses to be on-site prior to a race.
- A substantial investment by The Stronach Group in diagnostic equipment to aid in the early detection of pre-existing conditions.
- Horses in training are only allowed therapeutic medication with a qualified veterinary diagnosis.
I read this, and initially I rolled my eyes.
But then I thought about it and acknowledged that any reform was a decent move towards at least a side conversation.
Because I truly do think that the change in weather played a role in the make up of that one particular track, and that this still needs fully investigated and appraised. Should horses have been doing timed works without any true change? No. Should the track have been opened so soon? No.
But are some of these good points? Sure. And many I can get behind. Many I agree with and have been hoping to see change nation wide.
What I can’t get behind are changes simply to appease the uneducated, and alterations made without data or science to back them up.
And as I lamented of this to a close industry friend, we began to list the things that could actually benefit both ends. The horses, the horsemen, and the entity that is this industry.
Things that need to be within the thinktank for that elusive governing body that we so desperately need. Bullet points that might change the game for the better. Commitments to not only the betterment of animal welfare, but the game itself. And issues that should not be up for discussion.
The trainers, owners, and racetracks should all WANT these things. And if they don’t, then I question their motive for involvement within this business.
Yes, we need to tighten up on medications. Do I think we can wean our industry off of Lasix? Yes. Should we? Yes. Can it be done over one day? No.
So propose a gradual plan. Beginning January 1st, 2020 no Lasix in grades stakes races. Beginning January 1st, 2021, no Lasix in any races. Allow the trainers to transition true bleeders to aftercare locations, or better yet, rest them and regroup like other racing locales do.
Do I think bute is causing breakdowns? No. As a competitive rider, I don’t even utilize phenylbutazone in my wheelhouse for the simple fact that I find it quite ineffective in true pain management, and for that turn to flunixin (Banamine). Will it assist a sore horse into some semblance of pain free movement? Yes.
But will it mask a fracture to the point that a lame horse will run sound and simply break? No. Should it be given as often as it has been? No. But that isn’t because of catastrophic injury, but moreso gastrointestinal health.
1c. Joint Injections:
Which leads me to the actual problem: joint injections. The headlines point to oral NSAIDs that don’t truly minimize high pain levels, when the injection of steroids into a joint space actually can. We need to set more stringent limits on how close to a breeze or race a joint injection can be given; and moreso, limits on how OFTEN these injections can be administered. I have read the vet records on these horses and at times wonder how their fetlocks haven’t fused.
If a horse is having steroids placed in its joints monthly, it is ill prepared to run safely.
Finally, Osphos. A therapeutic initially meant for horses struggling with navicular syndrome, it is suddenly being used in young horses in training. And as Dr Larry Bramlage stated, evidence in humans suggests that repeat administration of this substance can delay bone healing and remodeling. This, above all and even moreso than Lasix, should be limited in how often and for what for it is given in our performance horses. A drug so much more powerful than an NSAID, user are astonished at how quickly one injection of this substance can turn a lame horse sound–and that is exactly why it scares me.
2. Whip Rules:
Yes, there needs to be rules on how many times a horse can be struck by the whip and what type of whip is allowed. But at the same time, we also need to educate fans on what exactly whips SHOULD be used for, and the minimal damage that they cause for the horse both mentally and physically. When used correctly, whips are just as much a safety measure themselves as they are a negative in publicity measures. They can be utilized to avoid swerves that can cause horses to slam into one another, and because of that, I believe they are essential. So limit the strokes in the homestretch, but do not propose to take away the ability to carry one.
3. Veterinary Care:
The Stronach Group vows to only allow horses to be receiving medication if under veterinary guidance and diagnosis, and I just have to roll my eyes at this. Trainers are not allowed to inject horses, and heavy fines are already given if even an empty syringe is found in a tack room. So while I agree with the point, I also know just how controlled the backside can be on a good track (which Santa Anita is).
But there is such a thing as bad veterinary work. We have seen it time and time again. Veterinarians make money based on services performed and, at times, drugs administered.
So maybe moreso than regulating just medications, we also force veterinarians to regulate themselves. Explain their treatments. Justify their diagnosis. And put their decisions on the line.
Have them write race certifications. Go over the horse before the race and state on paper that this horse is sound and of the ability to perform. And then hold the veterinarians accountable. If too many horses under a single veterinarian or trainer are vanned off, hold them accountable. Horse can’t race without veterinary permission, just like a broodmare can’t sell without a veterinarian deeming her reproductively fit.
If the individual private veterinarians do not feel comfortable doing so, than the track needs to hire competent veterinarians who do this for them. Their sole job should be to go around to the race entries of the day, feel legs, watch jogs, take temps, and assess overall condition. This might take having 4-5 veterinarians on staff, and I am perfectly fine with that.
4. Strengthen Slaughter Policy:
This is a no brainer to me, but I still feel fright when I see my horses run at particular tracks. If a horse is found at a kill pen within 30 days of training, the last listed trainer and owner should be held accountable. If they can prove a contract was signed and ownership was relinquished, than the listed owner who took the horse and initiated the exchange should be banned from the track. No ifs, no ands, no buts.
We have lowered the number of TB’s who end up at slaughter tremendously. But with the current after care system and environment, there is no excuse for even one horse to land in that pen or one more to need bailed. Utilize TAA. CANTER. Local horsemen. New Vocations or ReRun. Or hell, some euthanasia. The slaughter route needs to be abolished, or we will never earn legitimacy from the public.
5. Drug Testing:
Horses need tested randomly in every race, not just winners or 1-2-3. Testing needs to be done by mass spectrometry, and research needs to be done to properly ensure withdrawal times and then this information needs to be given to trainers due to sensitivity for detection. This needs to be done by licensed laboratories that are blinded to samples.
Trainers and owners need handed stiff penalties for positives ONCE these withdrawal times have been established. And veterinary records taken into consideration when penalties are administered. The case of Masochistic frustrated me beyond belief because everyone was trying to do the right thing, and yet served an unbearable price for it.
At the root of the National Governing Body problem is the drug testing. Each state has different thresholds, different platforms to test, and different rules regarding what is legal and what is not. This leads to nothing but confusion, for horsemen and fans alike, and needs ONE set of rules that are based on fact and pharmacokinetics of the drugs. Not hearsay and prayers.
The best defense is a good offense.
An offense that is eloquent and allocated with facts and data. At this moment, we are so busy backpedaling that we are scared of any change for fear it may change the sport we love so much. But if these past few weeks have showed us anything, it is just how much we need to change to survive.
Yes, things need to change. And not just at Santa Anita or Golden Gate. If Stronach truly wanted credibility, he would enact these changes at all of his tracks, something that I believe may come soon.
But moreso, if we as an industry want credibility, we also need to sit down and think.
About what truly matters.
About what is truly hurting.
About what the general public believes.
About what we as horsemen know.
And moreso, about what the horse deserves.
Because at the end of the day; that is what brought us all in. The love of the horse. And the breath being taken out of your body as you watch that Thoroughbred streak across the ground. Seemingly uninhibited by the cumbersome men surrounding him. Unconcerned by the industry collapsing around him.
We need to protect us. But moreso, we also need to protect them. And we can’t do so by running backwards dodging bullets. Instead, let’s regroup, realign, and mount the best offensive plan possible.
We can afford to lose this battle. But we can’t afford to lose the war. And there’s one hell of a fight ahead of us.