The proposed strategic plan that came out of last month's Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit is one of those documents or white papers that most likely will land in one of two places: the Thoroughbred industry's dust-gathering burial ground of so many other good ideas; or the hands of a leader with the energy, influence, and personal commitment to make a difference.
The plan gives hope there are things that can be done, substantive actions that can take place, to help strengthen the Thoroughbred breed and reverse the multi-decade trend toward shorter racing careers, fewer starts per year, increasing injury rates, and high-profile fatal or career-ending injuries to horses like Barbaro in this year's Preakness Stakes (gr. I) and Pine Island and Fleet Indian in the Emirates Airline Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I).
The actions can be as simple as regulators enacting a ban on racing plates with toe grabs, equipment that research has suggested can lead to a higher incidence of injury. They may be as complex as development of a microchip "medical passport" for all Thoroughbreds that will document every veterinary procedure, injury, and treatment a horse receives throughout its life.
There is a twofold purpose for taking the summit recommendations to heart. First, and most obvious, is the responsibility owners, breeders, and the industry at large have to the animals themselves. Simply put, we owe it to the horses that give us so much joy or contribute to our economic well being. Secondly, many of the recommendations will help serve the public relations requirements of an industry whose commitment to protecting its equine and human participants is called into question after every high-profile injury.
For example, after Barbaro's injury and the heroic work of the veterinary team at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, industry experts could offer only vague responses to questions from the media about the number or percentage of racehorses injured annually or euthanized as a result of a racing or training injury. Several injury studies have been conducted over the past 20 years, but there has been little or no coordination among the researchers or regulators involved with those studies.
The summit, a portion of which was open to the public and press, was coordinated by The Jockey Club and the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation. Presumably, it was conducted because of Barbaro's injury and the many unanswered questions that followed.
One of the presentations during the summit came from Drs. Karin Opacich and Mary Scollay, who proposed a specific injury reporting system -- something that is desperately needed. Whether their proposal or someone else's is adopted by the summit organizers, it is vital that every racing jurisdiction gets on board and follows the same criteria. This is not an area where egos should come into play. One out-of-step jurisdiction can tarnish the work.
The strategic plan has other components involving, among other things, increased education and higher licensing standards for trainers, jockeys, veterinarians, grooms, farriers, and racing officials. It also recommends development of a "durability index" for stallions and encourages The Blood-Horse
and other publications to promote those statistics as an educational tool for breeders and owners. Another recommendation is that racing secretaries develop more "creative" condition books and improve their level of communications with trainers.
Self-interests among breeders, owners, trainers, and veterinarians may cause some industry participants to oppose recommendations in the strategic plan. One summit participant, Dr. Thomas Brokken, president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, summed it up this way: "There are a lot of factors in what's happening in the horse industry. But the No. 1 factor, I believe, is the almighty dollar. And that has really hurt us in the health of the horse."