Breakdown at Penn National May Lead to Reform

No vet care was available for a filly for an hour after a catastrophic breakdown.

An incident Sept. 18 involving a filly who broke down during training at Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course and was not euthanized for about an hour could spark policy reform among state racing commissions and racetracks.

The 4-year-old filly Langfurs Answer fractured her lower leg, stumbled, and fell to the track during training at about 7:25 a.m. EDT, according to the Paulick Report. The exercise rider was thrown but uninjured.

Owner Enrique Alonso Jr., the son of the filly’s trainer, Enrique Alonso, was watching near the gap of the racetrack and rushed to the horse after she fell. A horse ambulance arrived quickly but a veterinarian could not be found on the grounds to euthanize the filly.

“It is just a deplorable situation what that horse had to go through,” Todd Mostoller, executive director of the Pennsylvania Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, told The Blood-Horse. Mostoller said he witnessed the incident and estimated the horse was on the track for about 45 minutes before a veterinarian arrived. “Anything beyond a couple of minutes of distress is unacceptable.”

He said racetrack management promised to take action after similar incidents in the past but without any results. The Paulick Report also reported on a May 2010 incident at Penn National involving an injured horse that was forced to walk back to the barn because the horse ambulance was unmanned.

“It is very frustrating for us,” Mostoller said. “We have been engaged in trying to get the commission to mandate there be a veterinarian during training hours. But we don’t have any jurisdiction. It is not our property, and we are not the regulator.”

Enrique Alonso when contacted did not want to discuss the incident. “I don’t have anything more to say. I don’t want to talk about it,” he said.

Chris McErlean, vice president of racing for track owner Penn National Gaming Inc., also declined to comment. On its most recent overnight sheet, however, Penn National published a notice for horsemen about "soundness" exams.

"Beginning Oct. 4, 2011, racing soundness inspections shall be conducted on horses entered to race," the note on the overnight states. "The trainers or their representatives shall make themselves available for the racing soundness inspection. Failure to comply may result in the horse being scratched and disciplinary action taken."

The issue with not having an attending veterinarian on the grounds of racetracks, or even training centers, is not new.

“There has already been some discussion, and I think after this incident it will be a topic of conversation in a number of circles,” said Dr. Mary Scollay, equine medical director for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. “This is related to some of the issues the (American Association of Equine Practitioners) is addressing, some communication issues between the trainer and the veterinarian.”

Most state commissions only require veterinarians to be on the grounds of a racetrack in connection with racing.

“We don’t have a regulation that requires an attending veterinarian on the grounds (during training),” Scollay said. “Our presence is tied to racing and determined by the needs for the day. State vets are present for a portion of the training hours and are on-site until the last race has been run and the test barn operations are closed for the day.”

Kentucky state veterinarians are on the grounds in the late morning because the state does require pre-race veterinary exams.

Whether or not a veterinarian is available during training hours is handled differently at each racetrack.

At Churchill Downs Inc.’s four tracks—Churchill Downs, Arlington Park, Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, and Calder Casino & Race Course—at least one private practitioner is on-call and on the grounds when the tracks are not racing live. Turfway Park maintains a log at the stable gate guardhouse of all veterinarians on the grounds and their contact numbers. If an incident happens on Turfway's track, the outrider contacts the guardhouse and a veterinarian is contacted immediately.

In California, a similar incident to what happened at Penn National occurred at an off-site training center and moved the California Horse Racing Board to require a veterinarian be on the grounds during training hours at training centers.

“People believe a vet should be available during training and racing hours,” said Dr. Scott Palmer, chairman of the AAEP Racing Committee. “But there are glitches. Everyone agrees, but the question is who pays for it.”

Cost of providing coverage is a factor at Penn National, but there are other logistical issues. For example, Penn National runs at night, so few veterinarians are on the grounds early in the morning because Salix shots don’t need to be given until later in the day.

Training on Sunday mornings is another problem. Sunday training activity is typically so light that, again, few vets are on the grounds.

Palmer relayed a story from a racetrack manager who reportedly told the trainers at his facility to either be sure a veterinarian is on the grounds during training or he would shut down Sunday training.

“It seems to be Sunday morning is a crack in the system,” Palmer said. “From a horse welfare standpoint, it is a no-brainer. If the rider got hurt, there is an ambulance present and a doctor. It seems we have two athletes, the rider and the horse, and you need to protect both of them.”

The Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission is reportedly looking into the Penn National incident, but what action it may take is unclear.

“The commission is looking into this unfortunate situation,” Samantha Krepps said in an e-mailed statement. Krepps is press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, which houses the racing commission. “The commission expects that prior to racing or training any race facility do all that it can to ensure the safety of all participants, both horse and human.”

Krepps did say the commission expects all racetracks to ensure ready access to emergency veterinary care in the event of an accident or illness during training and racing hours; that racetrack surfaces have been properly maintained, prepared, and groomed for training or racing; that outriders are properly trained on equipment and procedures with working communications systems in order to appropriately respond to emergencies; and that horse and human ambulances are staffed by properly trained individuals and adequately equipped for emergencies.

“The commission is committed to preservation and development of the Thoroughbred racing industry and considers the racehorse to be at the core of the industry,” she said.

Krepps was asked to clarify whether the obligations outlined by the commission are now required by state law or are being contemplated as state future requirements. She responded by sending a copy of the state law that requires racetracks to have a horse ambulance available, which Penn National did. The law does not specify that a practicing veterinarian must also be available during training. However, Krepps also stated that in an August 2010 memo, the commission notified the tracks that ensuring "ready access to emergency veterinary care in the event of an accident or illness during training or racing hours" is required under state regulation.

Having a practicing veterinarian available during training hours is required by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s racetrack accreditation program, which is managed by the Safety and Integrity Alliance. This provision was created to fill the void in state regulations, alliance executive director Mike Ziegler said.

“I can see with night racing and Salix not being given until the afternoons that this might not be on a racetrack’s radar,” Ziegler said. “But that is one of the best outcomes of the accreditation for racetracks. It makes management look at things that they might not have thought about. Often, this can be addressed by organizing your practitioners.”

Ziegler said no racetracks in Pennsylvania have applied for accreditation.

“It is a tragedy and no one feels good about it,” Palmer said. “I am confident that some changes will be made because of this that will be positive.”