The California Horse Racing Board is planning to expand its well-regarded equine post-mortem examination program into part of a new racetrack injury prevention plan in conjunction with the University of California-Davis.
During a meeting of the CHRB's Medication and Track Safety Committee April 8 at Santa Anita, executive director Kirk Breed reported that the agency could spend $1 million per year for additional staff at Davis to develop and administer the program.
In addition to making better use of the data collected over the past 20 years on horse fatalities at the tracks, the program will also adopt new standards for safer racing surfaces using updated methods of measure, and take a harder stance against repeat offenders of the state's medication rules.
Under the existing track surface safety standards, "we have not significantly reduced injuries and fatalities to race horses in the past 20 years," Breed said.
Breed said the post-mortem program can help horsemen better understand racing injuries and can be used to investigate more fully racing and training accidents, injuries, and fatalities.
Post-mortem exam statistics, which show that 90% of the horses that break down on the track had a pre-existing link to the fatal injury, and bio-mechanical studies conducted on horses' action over synthetic, dirt, and turf surfaces are key, Breed said.
"We all know the story (when a horse is euthanized due to injury on the track)," Breed added. "The trainer blames the racetrack, the track is too hard, the horse takes a bad step. These things do happen. But sometimes a horse has a pre-existing injury and shouldn't have been out there."
Dr. Sue Stover, who heads the post-mortem program at Davis, said the time has come to advance what her forensic investigations can provide into action that can protect horses and jockeys.
"We've developed a lot of information that is useful, but it is not getting to the people (owners and trainers) that can make use of it," Stover said. "For a long time, we've looked and observed. Now we'd like to make a difference."
Dr. Don Shields, a veterinarian who runs a horse rehabilitation faclity in Bradbury, Ca., commended the intent of the program. But Shields, who also consults for the California Thoroughbred Trainers, said that as a practical matter, it would be problematic to determine which pre-existing injury in a horse could eventually develop into something career or life-ending.
Stover admitted that it is much easier to use necropsy reports in a general sense, but the detection of abnormalities in a sensitive area such as the fetlock carry stronger risk.
"I think we need to come up with practical recommendations. There are numerous factors that need to be taken into consideration." she said. "A key portion of this program is education."
Dr. Rick Arthur, the CHRB's equine medical director, said that horsemen need to see that "nurturing horses over a longer period of time" promotes the horse's longevity and is more economical in the long run.
"The trainers that will actually listen and learn will benefit more than those who don't," Arthur said.
Changes in veterinary and training methods can also keep the population of horses in training at a more stable level, he said.
"Catastrophic injuries are just the tip of the iceberg to the number of horses we lose on our circuit," he added.
Bo Derek, chairman of the CHRB committe, asked that a report on the proposed program be advanced to the board for a full board hearing. Breed said he expects to have recommended standards for racing surfaces ready to consider by July.