Kentucky Equine Medical Director Mary Scollay, DVM, believes pre-race inspections not only help improve horse safety on many levels but also communicate a message to horsemen that equine safety is a priority.
Speaking at the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit on Oct. 16 at Keeneland, Scollay presented a 10-year study that indicated positive trends for pre-race exams in Florida and explained the steps of a pre-race exam while Kentucky Horse Racing Commission Chief Veterinarian Bryce Peckham conducted a typical study.
Scollay said the exams have let trainers know that the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission expects a certain level of soundness before a horse is allowed to race.
"We've established that line in the sand," Scollay said. "Some of this is training the trainers."
Scollay said trainers will continue to be the best judges of soundness and fitness of their horses, but through pre-race exams racing commissions can help make sure horsemen are meeting those obligations. She believes increased exams have improved horse safety in Kentucky.
"I do believe it has helped," Scollay said.
During the example exam, an attendant pulls down the lip to allow Peckham to identify the horse being observed. He then conducts a general assessment of the horse. Peckham lifts the front legs, one at a time, checking for range of motion and any inflammation, heat, pain, or swelling. The attendant then has the horse jog and canter away from Peckham and toward him.
Such sessions can be conducted in a shedrow but if more room is needed, the horse can be taken outside.
Older horses and horses with idiosyncrasies—an odd gait for instance—likely already have those issues noted from previous exams. If needed, a team of vets can observe a horse with such issues.
In Kentucky, extensive record-keeping helps determine any horses that need special attention. For instance, horses making their first start at an older age would receive extra observation. Horses that have recently had a layoff, and horses making their second start off a layoff of 60 or more days also would get extra attention.
Regulatory vets also have drug test records at their disposal. Horses that have received multiple injections of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAIDs) medications would receive long looks. Scollay noted that administering more than one NSAID is not illegal but raises concerns.
"That tells me that someone had concerns about these horses," Scollay said. She relays that information to the examining vets to be on heightened awareness when examining those horses.
Other potential red flags occur for horses who look exceptionally different in demeanor, whether negative or positive, compared to a recent exam. Horses with frequent jockey changes or significant changes in training also get extra attention.
Scollay presented pre-race exam numbers from Calder Race Course and Gulfstream Park compiled from 2000-2010 during her time in Florida. During that time, 160,000 horses received pre-race exams at Calder and 77,000 at Gulfstream.
Over that period, 407 horses were scratched by the regulatory vets during pre-race exams, on-track exams, and exams at the gate. This number did not include horses that suffered injuries before the race on the track, such as a horse that injured himself in the gate. Two horses were randomly selected to serve as control horses for the study.
The numbers seem to indicate—at the least—that many of the horses scratched following pre-race exams did have problems.
Scollay said of the 407 scratched horses, 88 failed to race again (21.5%). Of the 814 control horses, only 2.9% never raced again. The percentage of scratched horses that did not race again initially seemed high to Scollay but she noted that a similar study conducted in Australia generated similar results.
Of the 319 scratched horses that did start after the scratch, the average time before their next effort was 109.8 days. For the 97.1% of control horses that started again the average time before returning to the races was 38.5 days.
Scollay said pre-race exams do not attempt to eliminate all risk in racing but withdraw horses that are unfit or at an unacceptable risk of injury.