CHRB Looks at Safety, Out-of-Competition Testing

Edited press release
The California Horse Racing Board is studying ways to promote the health of racehorses and reduce on-track injuries, as well as implement a plan for out-of-competition testing.

The safety topic, currently in the headlines because of breakdowns at Del Mar, was discussed July 21 during a meeting of the CHRB Medication Committee.

"The injuries to our horses are unacceptable," said committee chairman William Bianco said. "The board has taken one step by mandating the installation of safer synthetic surfaces, but we need to take additional steps to address this serious problem."

"I think we are seeing many issues coming together that are dictating the need for better racing surfaces along with a review of our medication procedures, testing, and permitted medications," said CHRB chairman Richard Shapiro, also a member of the medication committee. "With all of the more advanced medications and diagnostics available to this industry, we are still seeing a decline in starts per year and in the racing life of our horses. That should not be acceptable to us."

Bianco, Shapiro, and CHRB commissioner John Harris held the meeting attended by veterinarians, owners, trainers, racetrack executives, fans, and others in the industry to discuss the injury problem and other critical issues, including several planned improvements to the drug-testing program.

"My number one goal as equine medical director will be to reduce injuries to horses," said Dr. Rick Arthur, who will assume the position of CHRB equine medical director in September after he closes out his private practice, "We need to do a better job of identifying horses that are at risk. We need to look at more imaginative and better ways to examine the horses. We should make surprise visits to barns to examine these horses. And we should examine some horses after they race.

"The entire examination and vet's list procedure is going to be evaluated and probably will become more restrictive. We need to change reporting procedures for injuries. I intend to meet with the owners (Thoroughbred Owners of California), trainers (California Thoroughbred Trainers), and racing associations to develop a more comprehensive reporting program. With better reporting, we can keep a close eye on patterns and problems as they develop."

Harris cited the need to look at horse health using more facts in evidence rather than listening to rumors not based on science. He expressed disappointment that even with the recent development of new technologies to better diagnose injury potentials, such as digital X-rays and nuclear scans, the actual rate of fatal injuries isn't declining. Harris suggested any horse taken off the track by ambulance in the morning should be placed on the vet's list, even if the problem is deemed to be minor.

As for use of illegal drugs, Arthur recommended freezing more blood and urine samples for possible future analysis when tests are developed. He said freezing samples should "make it difficult for cheaters to sleep at night."

The CHRB has asked the state for a budget enhancement of $850,000 for increased drug testing and, if that request is approved, CHRB executive director Ingrid Fermin proposes more out-of-competition testing of horses expected to race in the near future but not actually entered to run. Horses nominated for upcoming stakes would be logical choices.

Arthur said out-of-competition testing would be useful for detecting blood-doping agents and perhaps other substances that current post-race testing might not catch.

"Subject to approval of the budget-change proposal, we are going to start sampling more horses that are not entered to run," Arthur said. "We have the authority to do that and we are going to do that. It's the way the Olympics do it, and it's what we should be doing. The primary program will be random but, if there is specific evidence to target some specific trainer or specific horse, we will have defensible criteria to go into any trainer's barn if it is not random."

Shapiro suggested any trainer winning at an exceptionally high ratio should be tested.