On June 3, 2019, the board of stewards at Santa Anita Park suspended trainer Michael Pender for 30 days for violation of two of its rules: #1887 Re: Trainer to Insure Condition of Horse and #1902.5 Re: Animal Welfare.
The administrative action stems from a complaint filed by the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) on April 11, 2019, alleging the following:
“Trainer Pender knowingly worked a horse “New Karma” after a veterinarian examination disclosed a fracture in the horse’s left front leg. The horse was shipped to Golden Gate Fields where it was entered to race but subsequently scratched due to its injury.”
To fill out some details, New Karma is a 7-year-old that last raced on February 17, 2019, running 2nd at Santa Anita for a $18,000 claiming price. According to Equibase, New Karma has earnings of $213,007, winning seven races in 43 starts. The examination by practicing veterinarian Heather Wharton took place on February 25, 2019.
The fracture notwithstanding, the workout history of New Karma on Equibase shows a bullet work at Santa Anita Park March 24, 2019 — travelling the 4 furlongs in 47.80 (handily). It was the fastest of 46 works of the day at that distance. The horse was then entered at Golden Gate Fields to race on April 6, 2019.
I will take you inside the hearing in front of the Santa Anita board of stewards on May 14, 2019, by distilling, from the 156 page transcript, excerpts of what I believe to be the most relevant of testimony. I’ve included the page number of the testimony I’ve cited along with a copy of the full transcript for your perusal.
After these excerpts, I’ll follow up with some comments about the case.
Heather Wharton, practicing veterinarian
Q: And what, if anything, did you observe in the radiographs you took of “New Karma’s” front left leg on February 25th of this year?
Dr. Wharton: The horse had a left front……left front medial apical sesamoid fracture. (40) …
That portion of the sesamoid is where the insertion of the suspensory apparatus is and is crucial to the support and stability of that joint. (40)
Q: What did you tell him (Pender)?
Dr. Wharton: I told him that the horse had a fracture and required surgery. (41) …
Well, our only clinical indication is the appearance of the fracture. The fracture lines themselves were very crisp and clear, which to me, indicates that is was acute. That it had recently occurred. (41)
Q: Okay. Why did you recommend surgery?
Dr. Wharton: For the horse’s career. You could let that bone heal on its own, if you will, but it will always be at risk, unfortunately, so the best action for that horse, if you were to continue racing, would be to remove the fragment and to assess the stability of the suspensory apparatus and its involvement with the fracture. (42) …
Any bony injury takes roughly four months to heal, so we generally give them four to five months off and bring them back to slowly train, depending on how they’ve healed, and once we’ve re-radiographed and assessed the joint. So it is entirely dependent on how the horse heals and how the surgery went. But if everything goes well, generally, you know, four to five months. (45)
Rick Arthur DVM, equine medical director of the CHRB
Q: Okay. In your opinion, how long generally would it take for an injury such as the one depicted on February 25th X-ray to heal?
Dr. Arthur: I would think - - first of all, they don’t heal well. They oftentimes get a fibrous union. The sesamoid bone is always under tension. So there is a tendency to be pulled apart. So it is not like a cannon bone fracture where you can screw them back together and get pressure. (63) …
I would not expect this horse to continue training. To me, either the horse should have been operated on or stopped on. The sesamoid constitutes the majority of the fractures we see in horse racing. In fact, in the recent spate of injuries, 19 out of 22 of the horses that died here had sesamoid fractures. It’s a very high-risk fracture. (65) …
I would consider anybody that would race a horse with that fracture is negligent and abusive to horses. That is my professional opinion. I stand by that. (79)
Of all the testimony in the four-hour hearing, the following exchange stood out to me:
Michael Pender, trainer
Steward Baker: Mr. Pender, looking back on the chain of events, if you had to do it all over again, would you have handled anything differently with regards to “New Karma”?
Mr. Pender: No. (31)
The racing industry doesn’t see many of these types of prosecutions. It’s not because the offenses don’t happen. It’s because they are difficult to detect, and regulators may not have the will and desire to prosecute.
I give the CHRB high marks for detecting this infraction and taking the effort to perform the investigation necessary to bring a formal complaint. I believe many jurisdictions would have just scratched the horse and never bothered to follow up with an investigation.
So, give credit to the CHRB staff. This type of mindset begins at the top. In this case, it is clear to me that Rick Baedeker, CHRB executive director, and his team of investigators, has the welfare of horses under the CHRB as the highest priority.
On the other hand, in my opinion, the penalty of a 30-day suspension imposed by the board of stewards is inadequate. Violating an animal welfare rule by endangering the life of a horse and rider should be one of the most serious offenses that a licensee can face. The penalty imposed should reflect the seriousness of the infraction. Simply stated, this one doesn’t.
For example, in Indiana, where I was a regulator for 25 years, a 30-day suspension was the routine penalty for a groom or other licensee for first offense for a marijuana positive.
Which is a more egregious offense?
How often do trainers race horses at risk? Ones that they have reason to believe have a preexisting condition?
What can the industry do to protect these horses?
The Jockey Club has proposed a program that would substantially limit this type of behavior. That will be the topic of my next column.