Based on comments from panelists who discussed prioritizing safety of the racehorse among owners, trainers, and veterinarians during the second day of the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit July 9 at Keeneland, it appears adoption of various common-sense practices hinges on a change of culture in the racing industry.
It mostly comes down to communication and transparency, though both often prove elusive in an industry not know for readily embracing change.
Trainer Gary Contessa, who is based in New York, said he sees progress on the transparency front but added that much more needs to be done. He used as an example of the lack of information available when a trainer claims a horse, particularly its veterinary records.
"As a trainer, communication is so difficult because everybody is scared," Contessa said. "I can claim a horse and have no idea what the previous trainer did (regarding treatment). We have got to become transparent for the protection of the horse."
Contessa's other example involved a highly regarded 2-year-old filly he trained: she broke down in a race and was euthanized. He said some time later he was reading a detailed New York task force report on catastrophic breakdowns, and noticed the filly was among those in the analysis.
"In the report, the jockey said she warmed up poorly," Contessa said. "Some jockeys are scared to tell trainers that for fear they may not get mounts in the future. That can't be the way it works. When I read that I wanted to throw up. I was sick, but it changed my life."
In an overview, Dr. Scott Palmer, equine medical director for the New York State Gaming Commission, listed four parameters for owners, trainers, and vets in regard to racehorse safety. He recommended adopted of a "mission statement" on safety; the hiring of employees that buy in and share the commitment; adoption of policies that help identify at-risk horses; and a series of internal controls to ensure compliance.
Bill Casner, an owner who uses similar standards in his operation, urged Thoroughbred owners to be more involved with their racehorses.
"If owners are going to make a financial commitment, and an emotional commitment, it's imperative they be more involved in the management of these horses," Casner said. "There is tremendous pressure on trainers who are struggling every week to make payroll. They walk the shed row every day dealing with horses with problems.
"We need to address the short-term problems to maximize the career potential of a horse. I would urge owners to ask questions and become more involved in the management of their horses."
Clifford Barry, general manager of Pin Oak Stud in Kentucky, made a few suggestions: a database containing each horse's medication and treatment history, and continuing education programs for owners and trainers. He said more needs to be done to foster communication and dissemination of information.
Dr. Foster Northrop, a private veterinarian and member of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, said he believes "vets are often left out of the communication stream" even though it's their responsibility to treat and care for horses. He endorsed the idea of weekly vet reports that can be given to owners and trainers.
"When there is open communication, the relationship works better," Northrop said.
"I think it's huge," he said. "A lot of times trainers are hesitant at spending money on diagnostics; X-rays and ultrasounds are expensive. But if the horse starts to tell you it's not quite right, we need to stop. Horses will talk to you.
"I think it's about running yellow (traffic) lights. Nothing is more devastating to an owner or trainer than having a horse break down. It rips your guts out and makes you question if you want to be in the game. We have to make sure we don't run those yellow lights."