The column I wrote earlier this week, “The animal welfare case of Michael Pender: The CHRB is it be commended — with one exception,” makes clear that a trainer can place a horse at undue risk against the better judgment of others — including his or her own veterinarian.
In the Pender case, the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) disciplined trainer Michael Pender for working out the horse “New Karma” and entering it to race knowing it had a fractured leg.
What makes the Pender case stand out (other than that the violation was detected and prosecuted) is the seriousness of the injury. But the Pender case begs the question: How often do trainers work and race horses with injuries that, given third-party scrutiny, would mandate surgery or rest? What can be done to detect and deter the practice of placing horses and, of course, their riders at undue risk?
A comment made in the Pender hearing by Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the CHRB, is telling:
If I knew that this horse had these radiographs, I would know he had a structural problem. It’s very easy to manage a horse even with a fracture like this to make it look good. That’s part of the problem why we’re in this situation at Santa Anita. It’s very easy to make a horse look good, either by medication or by training patterns. (Transcript page 74.)
What more can be done to protect the horses?
Significant steps have been taken
Much has been done by regulators to prevent catastrophic injuries. The most significant initiative has been instituting pre-race exams. Although the thoroughness of these examinations varies from state to state, I believe they have saved lives by weeding out many at-risk horses on race day.
The next wave of reform may look like what is being undertaken at Santa Anita Park as I type these words. At the urging of California Governor Gavin Newsom, the CHRB has undertaken an unprecedented level of pre-race scrutiny to identify at-risk horses. Here is an excerpt from the Paulick Report from a June 12, 2019, article titled, “Santa Anita Institutes Review Board To Examine Individual Entrants’ Medical, Performance Histories.”
Led by CHRB Equine Medical Director Dr. Rick Arthur, DVM, and Chief Steward Darrel McHargue, a five-member team will provide additional review of horses' medical, training and racing history. This team consists of independent CHRB veterinarians and stewards, empowered to scratch horses that do not appear fit to run.
Specifically, the horse safety review team will utilize a new, comprehensive evaluation rubric to determine if each individual horse is at elevated risk of injury before racing. These criteria will include any history on the Veterinarian's List and Steward's List as well as any medical history, race history, and physical observations of the horse.
Even more can be done.
Up until now, regulators have had to intuit at-risk horses with incomplete information.
One of the most direct pieces of information, a known injury, is not necessarily revealed. This would all change if practicing veterinarians were required to disclose this information to regulators. A proposal with just such a requirement has been made by The Jockey Club.
Here is one of the key reforms proposed by The Jockey Club in a report issued earlier this year titled, Vision 2025 To Prosper, Horse Racing Needs Comprehensive Reform.
Injury Reporting. To further enhance the EID with complete details, all injuries sustained on the racing surface whether during racing or training and whether fatal or not must be fully reported into an electronic database. Horses that are injured are subject to immediate placement on the veterinarians’ list with criteria for removal that may include diagnostic imaging, veterinary examination, and counsel with attending veterinarians. Fatally injured horses must be necropsied and drug tested with results recorded in the EID.
Mandatory injury reporting would be a game changer in many ways:
- It would provide regulators with access to the underlying diagnosis by the individual most knowledgeable of the horse’s condition.
- It would place at-risk horses on the sidelines via the vet’s list with, hopefully, stringent requirements before the horses can work and, subsequently, race.
- Most importantly, it places a regulatory responsibility on the practicing veterinarian.
Some might argue that practicing veterinarians would be reluctant to report required injuries. My 25-plus years as a regulator inform me that if a veterinarian knows that his or her license is at risk for not reporting, he or she would comply with any clear and reasonable regulation.
All that would be necessary for compliance is a means of detecting non-compliance along with substantial penalties for not reporting. By substantial penalties, I do not mean a nominal fine or a 15-day suspension. If a veterinarian knows that a possible six-month or a year suspension awaits their decision to withhold a diagnosis, almost all veterinarians would comply.
Clear rules and serious penalties. That’s all it would take.