What If? - by Dr. Jennifer Durenberger

“You know, Doc, that filly you scratched the other day? We X-rayed that ankle, and she had the beginnings of a condylar fracture…”

I hear these words a few times each year when a trainer or private veterinarian is kind enough to give me an update. I am one of several dozen regulatory veterinarians, employed by racing associations or state racing commissions, in those jurisdictions that mandate pre-race inspections of “in-today” racehorses. Not all do.

As always, I spent a few moments mulling over the “what ifs.” What if I had been distracted or in a hurry or burnt out, as all of us get from time to time? What if I had not seen that brief, but very real, hint the filly gave me? She wasn’t “lame,” per se. The trainer was not “trying to get one past” me. She had (permissibly) been given a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory about 18 hours ago. Her legs had (permissibly) been in ice before I got to her. Had I not been “on my game,” I might not have felt what I felt or seen what I’d seen, and I might not have asked the groom to please “go one more time.” I might’ve checked her off as “racing sound” and walked on to the next entrant. 

She may have later been scratched in the post parade by the track veterinarian. But what if she hadn't been? What if that horse had started? Perhaps her rider would have noticed she was uncomfortable and been able to pull her up “uneventfully.” Perhaps by that point she would have aggravated the injury beyond repair, or perhaps not. What if she was on the lead or in traffic and the fracture became complete? What if I had let her go? The best-case scenario would have been a scratch at the gate, in itself undesirable for so many reasons. The worst-case scenario is unthinkable.

The vast majority of regulatory veterinarians are motivated by the good we believe we do, as even in the highest-paying jurisdictions we receive about $6 per horse for our professional judgment. Although by protecting the at-risk horse we are ultimately protecting their interests, our decisions often prove in the short-term to be inherently unpopular to all parties involved: the racetrack, the trainer, the owner. Sometimes the decisions result in litigation. But what if? What if this filly had been entered in a jurisdiction that didn’t require an inspection?

It is the “what ifs” that keep us all motivated to do the best job we can do.

Regulatory veterinarians can’t prevent all racing injuries from occurring, but we can (and do) prevent some. Yet, despite the recommendations arising from The Jockey Club Safety and Welfare Summits (as well as those of the Association of Racing Commissioners International Model Rules), not all jurisdictions require pre-race veterinary inspections. The primary constraint on this practice is, understandably, financial. Racetracks are cutting purses, and state agencies have been forced to undergo significant personnel and budget cuts. Everybody is being asked to do more with less, and this trend can only be expected to continue. But at the same time, state governments are considering expanding or tapping further into the proceeds from gambling as a way to increase their revenues. What if, as a prerequisite to licensing a new racetrack or renewing that of an old one, racing commissions mandated an adequate veterinary pre-race inspection program? I ask you: If a pre-race inspection can prevent just one horse like this filly from competing, how do we as an industry put a price on that? 

Other groups governing the use of animals in sports have pre-event inspection requirements. Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association-sanctioned events, the American Endurance Ride Conference, and the United States Equestrian Foundation competitions are all examples. Interestingly, the RCI Model Rules recommend a pre-race veterinary inspection not just for racehorses but for Greyhounds, as well. The Iditarod Trail Committee requires not only a pre-race physical inspection of its sled dogs, but blood work and electrocardiograms on all dogs prior to competition. Of all of the animals used in these sporting events, the racehorse is the only one asked to carry a rider on its back and the public’s money on its nose. They—and our industry—deserve all the protection we can provide.

Dr. Jennifer Durenberger is a regulatory veterinarian who has worked for racetracks and commissions in New York, Minnesota, and California.

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