By Dr. Jerry B. Black
-- Having been involved the past two years with the formidable task of achieving a uniform racehorse medication policy in the United States, I was pleased to see that the chairman of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, Gary Biszantz, would be adding an important voice to the cause during his "Plea for Uniformity" presentation at the recent Jockey Club Round Table. However, after receiving his repeat mount as chairman of TOBA, Mr. Biszantz went to the whip, applying it liberally to veterinarians. Citing increased longevity in people in an apples to oranges logic, he laid the blame for the reduced number of racing starts per horse, small fields, and a decline in breed durability on the doorstep of veterinarians.
Everyone involved with the health of the horse and the long-term growth of the industry should share Mr. Biszantz' personal concern for these issues. I certainly do. But while opinions abound, no scientific data exists to show why these trends are taking place. The use of therapeutic medication may or may not be a contributing factor. The truth is that we won't know until studies are performed that examine all the factors. However, casting veterinarians as the "witches of the devil" unfairly places blame and doesn't look at the decisive role that owners and trainers play in the management and care decisions of the racehorse. It would seem obvious that veterinarians do not initiate or control whether or not a horse is treated. The owners, or their agents, the trainers, do.
Veterinarians play a vital role in ensuring the health and welfare of the equine athlete. From daily preventive care to life-saving surgeries, their expertise extends far beyond the administration of medication. Most owners don't see the hands-on care and consultations performed by veterinarians, only the costs for services that are passed along each month by the horse's trainer. This alone does not give an accurate picture of the veterinarian's involvement.
Education and training make the veterinarian an important partner when it comes to making health care decisions. But as the people who make it financially possible for a horse to reach the starting gate, owners should and have the right to be working closely with veterinarians and trainers to ensure that optimal care options are selected for the horse. Ideally, the three should work together as a team. This is by far the best scenario for the horse and the sport.
Final decisions regarding the racehorse can only be made by the owner, who ultimately decides whether to race or retire, breed for durability or brilliance, or use therapeutic medications. If you believe therapeutic medication is the culprit in a shortened career or weakens the breed, then don't use it. If durability is a primary goal, then breed durable mares to durable stallions, not to fashionable commercial pedigrees or stallions with brilliant, but short careers. It needs to be recognized that short fields are also a product of the owners, trainers, and officials' newfound willingness to scratch a horse for nearly any reason, including a half-inch of rain or an unexpectedly tough field. "Thirty-to-one fever" is a disease for which the "scratch" is often the treatment of choice. Owners and trainers make that decision.
There is still a long road ahead for those in the industry who are working to achieve uniformity in medication. The veterinary community, through the American Association of Equine Practitioners, is working hard to define the problems associated with medication and move the industry toward a solution. With the AAEP's Racehorse Medication Summit last December and the subsequent formation of the U.S. Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, horse racing has its best chance ever of making significant changes. Perhaps we will even uncover the answers to the trends that concern Mr. Biszantz and so many in racing.
I am proud to be a member of the profession that has taken a leadership role in this movement and send a plea for uniformity of my own to the industry. Long-term success won't happen without the continued constructive involvement of all the stakeholders. Let's continue our efforts by working to understand each other's professions rather than pointing fingers. We've been down that road before.