A survey of buyers of Thoroughbred weanlings, yearlings, and 2-year-olds discovered that surgeries to correct conformation defects have a significant influence on whether or not someone will buy a horse at public auction.

In fact, 28.4% of the 726 respondents to the survey sponsored by the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association's (TOBA) Sales Integrity Program said periosteal elevation and transphyseal bridge procedures "greatly influence" their buying decisions. Those procedures were to be disclosed this year under the Sales Integrity Program, but implementation was put on hold in 2005 after objections were raised by consignors.

The survey didn't ask whether or not disclosure of such surgeries should be required by sale companies. It didn't have to. In both the question of how much importance buyers place on the procedures and in written comments made by those surveyed, the message was loud and clear: buyers want full disclosure.

Those words--full disclosure--were repeated over and over in the comments of survey respondents, many of whom also applauded the early work of the Sales Integrity Program. "Transparency is a must, or the industry will suffer," one buyer wrote. Said another, "Buying is mostly done on trust, and the higher the level of trust, the more likely I am to buy from the seller or agent." Another wrote, "We need full disclosure on everything!"

The downside to full disclosure of corrective surgeries is that an estimated 25% of Kentucky's foal crop will be affected if buyers shy away from young horses that have had the procedures. Interestingly, the survey also discovered that buyers with more experience, and those who invest the most money, place the least amount of emphasis on whether or not corrective surgery has been performed on a horse. That's worth repeating: the most experienced and committed buyers pay the least amount of attention to whether or not a horse has had corrective surgery.

Why? Perhaps they've had enough personal experience, or they may be aware of scientific, peer-reviewed articles that concluded the surgeries make little or no difference in subsequent racing performance. A late 1980s study of 199 surgically repaired foals and their 1,017 maternal siblings found a slightly lower percentage of starters among the altered group, but similar total and average earnings per start during their 2-, 3-, and 4-year-old seasons. The study was co-authored by equine surgeon Larry Bramlage, DVM, Dipl. ACVS.

So, it seems, hand-in-hand with disclosure must come more scientific data that subsequently can be used for buyer education. As one survey respondent wrote, "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I applaud the Sales Integrity Program's efforts, but more emphasis has to be put on educating the buyer than on simple information."

NEXT UP...STEROIDS?

Based on the comments of numerous survey participants, drug use at sales, particularly anabolic steroids, should be the next focus of the Sales Integrity Program.

"I am more concerned with steroids in yearlings than with corrective procedures," one buyer wrote. Another said, "I have purchased numerous horses at auction that actually deflated within a week of the sale. The use of steroids and other masking drugs is a larger problem, in my opinion, than the non-disclosure of corrective surgery." Yet another wrote, "Anabolic steroids should have a total ban--zero tolerance."

Getting to that point on anabolic steroid use or any substantive matter of disclosure might not be that easy. As one survey respondent wrote, "I think that without the blessing of the major auction houses, most of what you are trying to accomplish is impossible." Another said, "Sale companies must take more aggressive steps to protect buyers."

To its credit, TOBA has brought these issues to the fore. And that's progress.

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.

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