Though it is only in the discussion stages, there is a strong likelihood that all horses racing at Oaklawn Park in 2013 will undergo a pre-race examination.
During a recent meeting, the Arkansas State Racing Commission discussed adding another state veterinarian during the Oaklawn race meet so that every horse could be examined on race day. Though all horses are looked at in the paddock and on their way to the gate by the state vet and Oaklawn Park's veterinarian before each race, only horses deemed to be more at-risk based on their past performances receive additional race-day veterinary attention, according to Ron Oliver, executive director of the ASRC.
Oliver said that during the 2012 Oaklawn meet, the state contracted with one more vet to assist with the mandatory pre-race drug testing in graded stakes.
"It appears we are moving toward pre-race exams of each horse, which we have not done in the past," said Oliver, who noted any such changes in veterinary procedures would require statutory changes in state racing rules and regulations.
Oaklawn's veterinary protocols were apparently referred to recently by the top state veterinarian in Kentucky during a meeting of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission in reference to a high rate of catastrophic equine injuries at Churchill Downs in May.
Dr. Mary Scollay, KHRC equine medical director, said the staff looked closely at the backgrounds of the eight horses that died at Churchill in May and noticed a "commonality to that population of horses in that they had participated in racing at a specific venue before coming to Churchill."
Scollay said it was possible the venue (which she declined to name) at which the horses raced previously might not have had the same level of pre- and post-race scrutiny of its horse population that exists in Kentucky.
"The venue we felt was of interest; we are working with them and assisting them with their regulatory activities, like the pre-race exam process," Scollay said. "It's a small world and when they improve, we benefit, and when we improve, they benefit."
A review of charts for all races at Churchill in May showed about a dozen horses were listed as "did not finish." In some instances, the charts noted whether the horse in question was vanned off the track or walked off, but did not note instances in which the horses were euthanized.
Of those horses that did not finish in the May races, eight have not raced again. Of those eight, four raced at Oaklawn previous to the Churchill meet, with two coming from Keeneland, and one each from Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots and Tampa Bay Downs.
An official at Oaklawn defended the track's safety record and said the Churchill injury rates for horses that had been based in Arkansas were likely in line with the overall horse population at the track.
"One horse being injured is one too many, but it is not surprising that number came from Oaklawn because that probably represents a majority of the horsemen at Churchill Downs at that time of the year," said David Longinotti, assistant general manager for racing at Oaklawn. "The bulk of our horsemen, that's where they go when we end. If you did a poll of the entry box at Churchill you will probably find that is pretty consistent."
Though Oaklawn is not among the 24 tracks now fully accredited by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Safety and Integrity Alliance, Longinotti said it does not mean the track lacks the procedures or standards required of accreditation.
"I think we have the safest dirt track in America," he said. "We put an extreme amount of thought into the safety of our equine and human athletes."
Longinotti said he could not provide breakdown statistics for the Hot Springs track.
Longinotti said Oaklawn has made a significant investment over the past four to five years in its own soil lab that tests and analyzes the track's composition for safety and consistency. There is also a horsemen's track safety committee that meets weekly from the time the Oaklawn backstretch opens in the fall until the end of the meet the following spring.
In addition, Oaklawn has an inside safety rail, has adopted the guidelines of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, prohibits steroids, prohibits the use of toe grabs, conducts drug "super testing," and requires all jockeys and exercise riders to wear helmets and safety vests.
Of the standards required of tracks participating in the NTRA program, Longinotti said: "We look at those standards and we adhere to those standards, if not exceed them."
Longinotti said Oaklawn's lack of participation was due to the track's decision not to continue its membership in the NTRA. "It is hard for me to justify to my board the expenditure of paying membership in the NTRA," Longinotti said. "In the past, we have been members of NTRA when we believed in their mission; that mission changed."
Longinotti said the addition of a second state vet had been under discussion by the commission, track, and horsemen for some time.