The animal welfare case of Michael Pender: The CHRB is it be commended — with one exception

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)

Commentary

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?

Next

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.

Comments (8) -

  • I commend the veterinarians for telling Mr. Pender not to race the horse in question but what I find very disturbing is first, he ships the horse to another track because obviously he didn’t like what he was told and secondly his response that he would repeat this inhumane behavior and for this reason I would have given him a minimum of a one year suspension. On that note I have been thinking about why trainers are not required to take a training class. In the old days, we had good horsemen but since we are seriously lacking that now, something needs to be done to educate these trainers before they get a license. I know one practicing trainer that doesn’t even know how to saddle a horse. What has happened to horsemanship?
  • If he did it once
    He'll do it again
    That guy needs to have his license stripped
  • I think it is disgusting that Pender got only a 30 day suspension!!  He should have his license  revoked forever.  He has no feeling for a horse.
  • Greedy , unscrupulous owners and trainers. Disgusting.
  • Yup.  I know the guy well- a scammer to both horses and people...should have his license removed - get rid of him.
  • First of all, there are very few real horsemen left in this business but many business people who run businesses of racing horses.
    I would like to see that veterinarians be required to report to the stewards when a horse who is running at their track has an injury such as New Karma suffered. That way the horse would have to be removed
    from the grounds and not be allowed to race ANYWHERE until the trainer shows that the has been healed and ready to compete.  That trainer not only put the horses life on the line but also all of the other horses in his race and the lives of the riders also. If he had no knowledge of his horses injury is one thing but to be told by the veterinarian that the horse needed a 4 to 5 month rest at least and then
    go to another track is a crime.  It was deliberate and not an accident!!  He should be ruled off for life.
  • That the trainer got only a 30 day suspension proves how poorly this industry is regulated. Someone who would heartlessly, without hesitation, say they would treat that horse in the exact same manner should lose their license forever. They obviously do NOT have the horse's welfare as their main concern--purely money and greed.
  • This happened a few years back with a horse named prima zip at penn national. The horse was diagnosed with a stress fracture, the owners changed trainer,ran the horse, and the horse broke down. Silent ruler was another horse, he was found on the backside of penn national. The story goes he broke his leg racing and was found in his stall 3 weeks later, he was not being treated for this injury simply left to suffer, this trainer received a 45 day suspension, until public outrage forced the commission to take action. Now in both cases everyone involved except for the vet failed the horse at every corner and in every way, the industry has little will to clean house and protect the horse, things like this have gone on for years on end goes to show what the tracks and commissions ultimate desires really are wagering and filling races everything else is looked at as not their problem, nobody's looking out for the horses

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