Racing veterinarians recommended Monday that Thoroughbred racing make major changes to protect the racehorse and the sport.
The American Association of Equine Practitioners, based in Lexington, released a "white paper" to address problems that erupted into public controversy last year after the Kentucky Derby, including the death of second-place finisher Eight Belles and the legal use of steroids by winner Big Brown.
The goal is "reforming policies and practices in order to enhance the safety and welfare of the horse by putting the horse first," according to the paper. "We believe that this effort, based upon what's best for the horse, will also be the key to restoring public confidence in the racing industry."
To that end, the vets' task force emphasized ways to reduce injury rates.
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Dr. Scott Palmer, chairman of the task force, said from his veterinary clinic in New Jersey that the group looked at the broader context, including the business model of racing, and some areas could be controversial because of the economic implications.
Among them: claiming races, the lower level of racing where horses are automatically for sale and often change hands as soon as the gate opens. The vets recommended revising this policy so that horses that suffer catastrophic injuries or don't finish the race remain the property of the original owner.
Palmer said that would make owners much less likely to enter injured horses just to get rid of them.
"The claiming game is a great game. It's a great way to get a horse that's fit and ready to go," Palmer said. "But we all know a claiming opportunity is often used to move a horse on. Doing that in a way that is irresponsible can put that horse at risk."
The claiming issue surfaced in the recent rash of fatal injuries at Turfway Park, when some on the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission suggested the health of the horses might be more to blame than the track's artificial surface.
The vets also recommended uniform reporting of both racing and training injuries. Kentucky has been at the forefront of developing an injury reporting database to help identify potential trouble spots.
The paper urged that trainers not be pressured by track management to enter horses in races. "Because a larger field of horses promotes more wagering, which in turn increases purse size, small field sizes have caused racing secretaries in some instances to apply pressure to trainers to enter horses who might not otherwise be suitable for racing," the vets wrote. "This practice must be eliminated."
Some of the areas the vets addressed, such as racehorse retirement and uniform medication standards, have been the focus of industry initiatives in the last year. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association, The Jockey Club, Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association and other groups have mounted campaigns to ban steroids, some types of horseshoes and objectionable whipping practices.
Palmer said that, like those groups, the AAEP has no direct regulatory authority.
"These are recommendations. We have no ability to enact any of these recommendations. We feel like this is important information to support the work that other people are doing," Palmer said. "The next step really is we are here extending our hand saying we're here to help you guys do whatever you can do to make this business safer for the horses so that we can reduce the injury rate, so that people will be more excited about coming back to the races and not be worried about seeing a horse break down."