Continued improvement in regard to equine health and welfare is closely tied to major cultural changes in horse racing, panelists suggested Aug. 12 at the Saratoga Institute on Racing & Gaming Law in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
The two-day conference is focusing on issues related to horse racing and pari-mutuel wagering as well as the expansion of casino-style gambling in New York.
Dr. Scott Palmer, equine medical director for the New York State Gaming Commission, outlined regulatory issues involving equine welfare, which includes proper housing, health care, and humane euthanasia. The process is impacted by the animal rights' lobby, he noted.
"A lot of this is about the definitions and who is making the definitions," Palmer said. "It's very difficult to regulate a cultural change."
Palmer was a member of a New York task force formed in 2011 to address catastrophic breakdowns and recommend policies that could improve horse health and welfare. He said new regulations reduced the amount of therapeutic medications used in training, standardized pre-race exams, led to better maintenance of racing surfaces, and increased transparency.
One result was a reduction in the incidence of catastrophic breakdowns in New York, from 2.1 per 1,000 starts in 2012 to less than one per 1,000 starts in 2013.
"Fewer breakdowns are not an accident," Palmer said. "Racing fatalities are an actionable item."
Thoroughbred owner Gary Biszantz, a long-time advocate for the proper retirement and care of racehorses, touched on the medication issue. He said therapeutic drugs by definition should be used to help heal an injury, not be part of a training regimen.
"It's discouraging that an abundance of trainers believe horses must be medicated to run," Biszantz said. "We've done the best we can with withdrawal times (for drugs), but it's a tragedy for owners who spend a tremendous amount of money getting horses ready for races."
Biszantz believes regular use of medication in training has led to horses racing only five or six times a year because they need more time between races. On that subject, Palmer said changes in the objectives of trainers also play a role: "Their win percentage is their business card."
Thoroughbred owner Maggi Moss, also an equine welfare advocate who entered the racing business about 15 years ago, said horse welfare should trump other issues. She said the only medication that should be used on race day is furosemide, the anti-bleeding drug also called Salix or Lasix, and the focus should be on individuals who inject and block horses, "and do other heinous things."
She also said the horse slaughter issue needs more public discussion in racing.
"My concern is the welfare of the horse," Moss said. "My concern is the people that deal with these animals. I can't get into to discussions about race-day medication because I want to get rid of the really bad stuff killing horses."
Palmer said many of the issues in racing aren't new. He said resolution and progress are difficult because many practices are ingrained in the culture of the business.
"People with great intentions can't act unless the business structure encourages it to happen," Palmer said.