During their meeting July 19 at Del Mar, commissioners suggested that Dr. Rick Arthur, the equine medical director, meet with the Thoroughbred Owners of California, whose board endorsed ending the practice, properly known as a "posterior digital neurectomy." At the suggestion of Chairman Richard Shapiro, the matter is to return to the board at a later date.
Once a fairly common surgical practice to relieve a horse's pain from chronic foot ailments, there are only between two and six registered heel-nerved Thoroughbreds training in the state, according to testimony. That's because, Arthur said, "We have better diagnostic and therapeutic options today. But there are specific cases (of heel nerving) that benefit horses."
Arthur, who compared the procedure to a root canal in humans, also said there is no conclusive way to detect whether a horse has been heel nerved.
That would make enforcement of the rule problematic, Commissioner John Amerman noted.
Critics of the practice, in which posterior digital nerves of an injured horse are cut with a scalpel, laser or some other means, say that desensitizing the foot is dangerous and possibly fatal in the event of a fall to horses and jockeys. During meetings with Arthur, jockeys said horses that have undergone the surgery break differently than other horses and stumble more often. Darrell Haire, western regional manager for the Jockeys' Guild, said riders cited anecdotal evidence from other states.
"There's a huge public perception here (that heel nerving horses is inhumane)," said Marsha Naify, who chairs the TOC board. "We don't want horses heel nerved or having horses racing in California that have been heel nerved.
"The question is are we doing too much to get them to the track," she added. "It's a fine line and where do you draw the line? I don't think there is a lot of this going on, but our board was very clear that it feels it shouldn't be going on."
Two states -- Arizona and Iowa -- have banned heel nerving, while 35 racing jurisdictions allow it. Heel nerving came to public attention in December when Arizona-based owner Leslie W. Blake and trainer Dan MacFarlane claimed the horse Refinery for $50,000 at Hollywood Park, allegedly without knowledge that the colt had been heel nerved. They contend they were not informed about it until they later tried to run Refinery in a stakes race in Arizona. Blake has sued the horse's former trainer, Richard Mandella, and owner, B. Wayne Hughes, as well as Hollywood Park for allegedly failing to disclose the surgery.
MacFarlane, who also trains in California, told the CHRB that heel nerving is a felony in Arizona. "It's a permanent block. If you are blocking the pain, a horse could get seriously hurt."
He said if the board doesn't want to change the rule in California, "you've got to at least notify people" of horses that are heel nerved.
Arthur, then in private veterinary practice, performed the surgical procedure on Refinery.
Board critic and horse owner Jerry Jamgotchian, a vocal opponent of heel nerving, did not attend the meeting. In an email reacting to Arthur's argument against the rule change, he said, "Putting the life of the horse, its jockey, other jockeys and horses in a race at risk because Dr. Arthur thinks it's OK is absolutely wrong and without medical justification."
In other action, the board temporarily suspended its rule on whip specifications to allow jockeys to use an "equine friendly" style of stick at Del Mar. The soft leather whip emits a popping sound to get a horse's attention when it strikes and is not painful, according to Haire, who said 14 jockeys plan to use the new stick at the current meet. Arthur endorsed the move. He said whip cuts were a problem at Del Mar last season.
Shapiro said the entire commission would be involved in race dates committee action for 2008. Typically, two or three members hear dates proposals and make recommendations to the full board, where the process gets repeated. With questions about the future of Bay Meadows and Hollywood Park, Shapiro said it made more sense, in a long range approach, for all seven members to be involved. Meetings on next year's date schedule are expected to begin soon.