Human Error

By Christine Janks
Who is the advocate for the horses? Recently, a rash of breakdowns at Arlington Park has prompted media attention. Interestingly, the Chicago Tribune, which does not even publish entries or results on racing at Chicago-area tracks, seemed to lead the pack with the most coverage on the subject.

Undeservedly, the track surface has drawn most of the blame, even though the jockeys, exercise riders, and a great many prominent trainers have all said it was fine. Other "experts" were called in and also pronounced it excellent, which it is.

The "problem" then became a mystery. Or is it? I offered my own thoughts and suggestions in a commentary published in the Chicago Sun-Times, a newspaper that does publish racing information. Following are some excerpts from that commentary:

There is no mystery to me why we are having all these breakdowns. Even one is horrific, but when I see breakdowns occurring on almost a daily basis, I feel that finally the time is right to point the finger back where it belongs. Trainers are responsible for the health of these horses, and along with the owners choose when and where to race them.

The trainers are the first line of defense for the horses. Sadly, not all trainers put the welfare of the horse first, and it is clear that we will not police ourselves. I am calling for reforms to better ensure the safety of the horses and the jockeys participating in our sport.

The Illinois Racing Board needs new rules and stricter standards to ensure that only racing-sound horses are going to the post. The track has a conflict of interest in that it needs to fill races by encouraging entries. Many practicing veterinarians simply do what the trainer says if they want to keep their jobs. Jockeys do not want to scratch horses and lose business, either.

The horses are running for their lives, and who is there to protect them? In many cases, training is big business and horsemanship is secondary to promotion. Get one more race out of them, drop them down, and get them claimed. If they break down, fill the stall the next day with another young face. Do we really think that we can grow the business of racing by making these marvelous animals just part of the equipment?

I am pushing as hard as I can to get reforms in Illinois and hopefully it will lead to reforms wherever they are needed. I would like rules in place to prohibit running horses with fractured cannon bones, or with any other major fracture. We need rules that require practicing veterinarians to report horses entered with these fractures and more stringent examinations by the track and state veterinarians pre-race and post-race. I would like to see better veterinary list procedures and investigation of pre-race vet records on any horse that breaks down. To its credit, I am told the Illinois Racing Board has already started some of these procedures.

There will always be the rare accidental breakdown, but we need to make it easier for trainers and owners to do the right thing.

It is simply good business to protect the soundness of the horses. If we give them more rest time as needed and keep them sounder, they ultimately make more starts and more money for everyone.