Can Veterinarians Improve The State Of Thoroughbred Racing?

Mar 26, 2012 - 6:44 AM
Track veterinarians are in a tough position because no owner or trainer wants to hear that time off is the best answer for a horse's return to racing form. Photo by Allie Conrad.

I finally had time to read through the recent The New York Times piece on the current state of racing in this country. I had a hard time getting through the entire thing. All of those horses—doing what they do because people ask them to—and dying in the process, sometimes seriously injuring or killing jockeys in a breakdown—it makes me sick to my stomach. I had to leave it for a while, then come back and muddle through a disgusting and disheartening chunk at a time.

I feel as though it’s all been said before—get rid of the drugs, get a national governing body, have some type of consequences for illegally doping horses, change the claiming ranks. I’ve said it here in this blog and have read it countless other places by people far more qualified than I to say it.

But one thing jumps out at me that hasn’t been discussed, and someone needs to point to the very large elephant blending into the background here, so darnit, I’m going to do it. There is a problem with how horses are seen and treated by attending private veterinarians at the racetrack. The horses breaking down on the racetrack aren’t getting to the track without intervention from veterinarians.

When I have a lame horse, I tend to analyze the situation myself, and then if I cannot determine the cause, or if I have concerns about the severity of that lameness, I call my veterinarian. My vet comes out and looks at my horse, runs hands down his legs, flexes, pokes, prods, feels for a pulse and puts the hoof testers on. I have, at this point, racked up a bill from my veterinarian for a call fee (traveling to my farm) and his expert services to tell me what he thinks. He has done nothing else but use his education and experience to tell me what he thinks. When his experience, education and hoof testers tell me to get out the Epsom salts and soaking boot, I thank him and toodle off to find diapers and duct tape, wait patiently for an abscess to pop, pay my bill and go about my way.

This is a pretty major difference between a private farm and the racetrack.

From my understanding, at the racetrack, veterinarians are paid to treat horses.

“What’s the difference?” you ask.

The difference is this. If a horse is presented as lame, sore, swollen, what have you, a vet practicing on the track can run hands down legs, flex the joint and say that he feels the horse is (for instance) sore in the ankle. He does not get paid for this information. He only gets paid for the X-rays or the treatment costs. Doesn’t that mean that vets have a financial incentive to treat horses rather than recommend rest? For trainers who don’t care about what is going on inside a joint, the answer is easy—inject! No need for radiographs when some steroid injected directly into the joint means he’ll be sound and legally ready to race in a few days.

The veterinarians are put into a situation where they are endangering horses, people and, of course, their employment status. If they don’t do it, the next vet will. Horses then go out and run and further injure the joint, leaving them crippled for life if they are lucky, dead if they are not.

The ramifications of this are far reaching, and I believe reform is due on the ENTIRE racing world, from the ground up.

Many years ago while walking in Washington, D.C., I saw a bumper sticker that said “Stop Bitching, Start a Revolution,” (which I believe was the message of some odd West Virginia-based group of artists), but the message sits with me daily. I sense the revolution is in motion, and I’m hoping others will raise their fists and tell the racing non-powers-that-be that the status quo needs to go.

Ducking and covering, over and out.

Allie Conrad is executive director of CANTER Mid Atlantic, which provides retiring Thoroughbred racehorses with opportunities for new careers. Allie founded the organization in 1999 at Charles Town Racetrack (W.V.) after purchasing her beloved Thoroughbred Phinny, who had more than 60 starts at Charles Town, at the infamous New Holland Auction in Pennsylvania. A resident of Southern Pines, N.C., Allie also works full time as a project manager for a Washington, D.C., consulting firm. You can learn more about CANTER Mid Atlantic on their website, www.canterusa.org/midatlantic.

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