Keep Safety in Perspective

Watching Dr. Bryce Peckham, the state veterinarian in Kentucky, go from stall to stall doing pre-race examinations on horses entered to race on a recent evening at Turfway Park wasn't my idea of a day at the track.

But the 90 minutes or so spent in the receiving barn opened my eyes (even if it numbed my brain) to a few things: Peckham and other state vets have a lot on their plate on race days, and Thoroughbred racing does more in the area of equine safety than I thought.

Having spent time on the backstretch, I knew the drill but never paid much attention to it. So we asked the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance if it would be OK to observe a racetrack accreditation and report on it. Alliance and Turfway officials agreed, and the report will appear in the Oct. 3 issue of The Blood-Horse.

Exciting? Hardly. Educational? Absolutely. Worthwhile? Yes--if you keep it in perspective.

Like many industry initiatives, the safety accreditation process is viewed with skepticism. Soon after it was announced last year, officials were on the defensive, saying it's not a "whitewash" designed to deflect criticism that came from many directions in the stinging spring and summer of 2008.

I officially became a skeptic in the late 1980s when I started covering local and county government for newspapers in New Jersey. Politics will do that to you, and covering the horse racing industry has done nothing to change it.

It's pretty simple. Great industry, great product, lousy execution. Politics is a killer.

Part of me dreaded spending almost 25 hours observing two days of a safety inspection. Part of me figured it can't be all bad if it's at a racetrack.

It's amazing watching the people and the effort that goes into putting on the show day by day. They work hard and, for the most part, love what they do. It's a job, but it's also a culture, a way of life, the general public doesn't get to see or appreciate. Regulation is a big part of it, probably moreso than any other sport.

The accreditation review was detailed on one level, but pretty basic on another. Much of it involved assessing how things were being done, not implementing new procedures. That probably will come in round two in couple of years.

The only way it will work is if it continues and isn't allowed to languish or fall victim to politics like many past industry initiatives. A true assessment of security and integrity can only be made if the process is ongoing.

Given that perception trumps reality in this business, it's fine if the accreditation process in its first year is partly about "making it look good." Industries do that all the time. But the time will come for an accounting.

(Wait until wagering security and tote protocol becomes part of the process. That'll be fun.)

As for equine safety? The industry can't do enough. But it also has to realize--and openly admit--that no matter what it does (pre-race exams, new racing surfaces, medication restrictions), horses and humans are going to get injured or worse.

Reasonable individuals realize there are things we have no control over, hard as we may try.





Leave a Comment:


I can't wait for the article Tom.

There is a reason the college and pro sports, ie NFL or NBA, review rules every year to try and create more competitive/exciting game play and focus on keeping/making the sport safer.

25 Sep 2009 2:04 PM
Rachel A. (for real)

I respect the hard workers in the racing industry, very much.

Until horses don't run race day on pain killers, and "on demand" diuretics, the pre race vet "exam" doesn't really mean much.

Again, no disrespect to the average hard working Joe.

25 Sep 2009 3:11 PM

Thanks Tom for taking the time to do that observation - and to write your blog entry. I think the issue of equine (and human) safety is one of the most important of all but, as you say, it does have to be kept in perspective. I think the inevitability of some injuries is amply illustrated by the recent news about Kona Gold. He survived his whole racing career - but was injured in his own paddock. St. Liam comes to mind as well. Horses seem to be geniuses in finding ways to hurt themselves, all too often fatally, no matter how much due care is exercised by the humans in their lives. If we keep on researching track surfaces and get rid of those darn meds (I still believe Lasix, Bute and breakdowns go hand in hand) and do diligent studies on every aspect of equine care and management, we can keep injuries to a minumum - but nothing, not even "banning" racing or other equine pursuits, will ever eliminate all injuries. I'm looking forward to reading the article. Thanks again for taking the time.

26 Sep 2009 12:03 PM

Sorry, but the accredidation process doesn't do nearly enough to protect the horses.

This is a voluntary program.

Tracks are still not required to perform race day exams (Pinnacle).

So called track vets still do not do enough to protect horses. When a horse consistantly crosses the wire 20 - 30 lengths back, the owners should be forced to stop racing the horse. Horses are still being drugged and forced to run. Nerved horses are still allowed to race. Lame horses are still used to fill a card.

How exactly has accredidation fixed anything? And no, I don't want to hear about how this voluntary plan is a starting point. Cleaning up this industry requires much more than this. It requires hard and fast decisions for ALL tracks.

1) No more raceday drugs, period.

2) Mandatory race day exams (performed by an independent vet?).

3) Permanent suspensions for trainers, owners and horses for drugging infractions.

4) Mandatory injury and death reporting regardless of whether such an event took place during training or racing.

5) Forced retirement (not slaughter) for horses no longer willing, able or sound enough to race.

6) Full disclosure to betters regarding medications used as well as listing all veterinary procedures performed on each horse.

THIS would be a starting point.

26 Sep 2009 2:04 PM
Karen LaMarra

Unfortunately, A lot of what happens or doesn't happen will come down to money.  Who will have to pay for what?  The state vets on staff now are overworked.  Who will perform the additional inspections and reporting?  Everyone is complaining there isn't enough money to go around now.  Who will pay those extra persons needed to make sure the new safety regulations are implemented?  I am all in favor of doing whatever needs to be done to make the sport safer for humans and horses.  And I am in favor of doing what is needed to improve the sport's perception in the eyes of the public.  But before we promise a lot of changes to the system, do we know who is going to "hoof" the bills??

28 Sep 2009 4:50 PM
Harmon Walker 1V

Not one track has failed accreditation. It is farcical.

03 Oct 2009 6:09 PM

Recent Posts

More Blogs