Alex Waldrop believes the Thoroughbred industry responded appropriately in the wake of the breakdown of Eight Belles.

Alex Waldrop believes the Thoroughbred industry responded appropriately in the wake of the breakdown of Eight Belles.

Anne M. Eberhardt

Equine Welfare Key No Matter the Outcome

Equine health and welfare issues have a serious sense of urgency.

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association is prepared for “every potential outcome” on Preakness Stakes (gr. I) day, but no matter the result, developments in the area of equine health and welfare in the coming weeks and months are of the utmost importance, the organization’s president and chief executive officer said.

A few days before the May 17 Preakness, Alex Waldrop said he believes the Thoroughbred industry responded appropriately in the wake of the breakdown of Eight Belles in the gallop-out after the May 3 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). The NTRA worked behind the scenes on crisis management and handled numerous media inquiries.

Waldrop confirmed the NTRA board of directors, which met May 9, got feedback from individuals outside the horseracing industry.

“We have consulted with experts who have worked with other sports like Major League Baseball and NASCAR, and we are preparing for any eventuality,” Waldrop said. “Our hope is that we come out of this weekend preparing for a possible Triple Crown winner, but we’re seriously preparing for every potential outcome.”

Derby winner Big Brown was 1-9 in early Preakness wagering May 16. But history and reality show there are no sure things. Favorites lose and Triple Crown bids go up in smoke, and sometimes there are more serious circumstances that force the racing industry to respond.

Such was the case after Barbaro’s breakdown in the 2006 Preakness and the injury to Eight Belles, who was euthanized on the racetrack.

“The thing that comes back is the public wants to know we’re doing everything we can to prevent (injuries),” Waldrop said. “No one rationally thinks accidents will never occur. Society is becoming less (related to) agriculture and more urban, and in that context people are more sensitive to the welfare of the horse. Thoroughbred racing has to adapt to those changes.”

In retrospect, the launch of the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit had unexpected benefits. Racing could point to the fact it already was working to bring about change in that area. Now, however, there is a sense of urgency, something not aided by the fact no one organization has the authority to mandate changes.

“There is no organization that can mandate anything on a national basis,” Waldrop said. “The most misunderstood, least appreciated positive development in the last 10 years—maybe with the exception of the NTRA—is the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium. Through broad-based input, solutions have become part of model rules and have been implemented nationwide. That’s the best model we have to date.

“There have been calls for a league office—or benevolent dictator—but at this point in time there is no league idea that is workable.”

The Jockey Club Thoroughbred Safety Committee, formed just after this year's Derby, said it can strongly recommend changes in the industry but there are few things it can mandate.

The breakdown of Eight Belles put race-day medication under scrutiny yet again and, despite the fact there has been widespread progress on model rules and regulation, horse racing continued to take hits. The industry’s ability to implement regulations that in effect will ban use of anabolic steroids in racehorses will be closely watched by racing critics and members of Congress.

It doesn’t end there. The RMTC is taking a serious look at corticosteroids, such as prednisone, which are commonly used to treat inflammation in racehorses. Waldrop said such substances can be abused in racehorses.

“The truth of the matter is, once we eliminate use of anabolic steroids, we will have arrived at the European drug model with some variations,” Waldrop said. “We’re not far from the much-heralded European drug model, but people tend to discount that.”

Waldrop said issues related to horse retirement is another part of the equation that must be addressed. Equine retirement farms and agencies have sprung up in recent years, and the horse industry formed the Unwanted Horse Coalition, but many questions linger.

“No one really knows the scope of the problem,” Waldrop said of horses that can no longer compete. “But there are things we can do at the federal level to accomplish some things. We’re helping to manage the crisis.”

Waldrop said officials are looking at using the federal tax code to offer financial incentives to farmers to create equine retirement facilities. Such funds can now be used for conservation easements.