Vet Records Benefit Regulators, Horsemen
Photo: Frank Angst
Robert O'Neil (left) and Scott Palmer discuss veterinary records

In 2015 Gulfstream Park put a house rule in place that required the sharing of information on joint injections when a horse is claimed, and the track's equine health and safety director Robert O'Neil recalled a vocal complaint from one horseman about the new policy.

O'Neil said the horseman was concerned that if other trainers claimed one of his horses, they would have some insight into his program. But O'Neil said soon after the policy was in place, that same horseman—suddenly seeing the benefits of the policy—called to make sure he received the joint injection records of a horse he'd recently claimed.

In a panel on veterinary records April 18 at the Association of Racing Commissioners International annual conference on equine welfare and racing integrity in Charleston, S.C., several veterinarians who oversee such records programs said the benefits for safety, integrity, regulatory research, and horsemen far outweigh concerns of privacy.

In 2015 The Stronach Group went beyond any state regulatory rule and put a house rule in place requiring that within 72 hours of a horse being claimed, the trainer of record of the claimed horse forward to O'Neil information on any joint injections performed in the previous 30 days. The report must include joint(s) involved, medication used (Depo-Medrol, hyaluronic acid, etc.) and the dose used. O'Neil then forwards the information to the party who claimed the horse.

O'Neil said such policies make sense and help new connections to avoid starting from square one or repeating treatments recently performed on the horse.

New York equine medical director Scott Palmer said the state's policy requiring horsemen to report corticosteroid joint injections was put in place in 2012 and has generated 60,000 to 70,000 reports in that database.

"One of the things we do with that information is use it for research purposes. We had no idea, prior to the (Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety) of 2012 what the scope was of corticosteroid injections at the track," Palmer said. "We knew it was a lot, but if you don't measure something, you can't manage it. That's why we thought it was important to set it up and get a handle on it."

Palmer believes information from these records helps protect horsemen.

"What we discovered was that Depo-Medrol could be found in a blood test of a horse as long as 100 days after the administration period," Palmer said. "What that means is the 21-day withdrawal time for Depo-Medrol is a risky business."

Palmer said a wide variance exists—based on where the injection occurs—in how long Depo-Medrol can be detected. He said with that information, New York convinced track vets to largely eliminate their use of Depo-Medrol.

"That's a good example of how we can use the research findings from gathering medical and treatment records to protect people and create a regulatory policy that keeps people out of trouble," Palmer said. "That's a pretty good use of the information."

Palmer said additional vet treatment information is used in mortality reviews of horses who die at New York racetracks.

"We require 60 days of medical records. That's part of our review process to examine the circumstances that lead up to that fatality," Palmer said. "Having that medical information is very important.

"I can tell you the primary thing that we found in doing these reviews is that, usually the 60 days leading up to the incident are not adequate to really explain the whole story and frequently it's because the horse has changed hands. So we have no idea about previous surgery, injury, (or) problems in that individual."

In collecting those records, Palmer noticed that they frequently do not meet the standards of the state's veterinary board for keeping medical records. He said every vet is required to keep detailed records of the individual animals they are treating. Palmer said, in general, more diagnostic work is needed on horses in training.

"One of the things we've found, in four years now, when we ask for medical records in a case of a fatality is that a horse was never examined by a veterinarian at all," Palmer said. "That's a story in itself, isn't it?" 

State racing commissions should reach out to their veterinary boards, said Lynn Hovda, equine medical director for the Minnesota Racing Commission and chairwoman of the ARCI regulatory veterinarians committee.

"I think one of the most important things you can do, regardless of what state you're in, is engage your board of veterinary medicine," Hovda said. "We have the director of our board come out and sit down with our veterinarians at the onset of the season. We have a discussion (and) talk about their expectations. We ask our laboratory director to sit down and have a chat with them about her expectations."

Hovda said she also goes through all the rules and ends the presentation by saying, "I'm trusting you to do the right thing."

Telling Racing's Story

Panel discussions at the conference opened Tuesday with a talk about how to promote the sport. National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association chief executive officer Eric Hamelback called for a more positive message. He said he's aware the sport has problems, but said it seems like publicizing those problems sometimes overwhelms the positive aspects of the sport.

"There is so much great about this industry, and so much of it does not get put out in the press," Hamelback said. "In this position, I made it a goal of mine to put out a positive message."

ARCI president Ed Martin noted that there are many Youtube videos devoted to showing breakdowns of horses. He challenged the regulators and industry leaders in attendance to counter that message by conveying the stories of the beautiful, well-cared for animals and the people who care for them.

"I don't think there's anyone in this room who is excused from responsibility to generate positive feelings about this sport," Martin said.

Also on the panel, Penelope Miller, senior manager of digital media for America's Best Racing, said the many entryways into racing can provide a toehold when trying to introduce people to the sport. Miller noted that ABR relies heavily on social media to tell that story.

"We try to come at the sport from the perspective that there is something most everybody will enjoy and identify with: the celebration, cocktails, fashion, horses, gambling," Miller said.

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