Derby Weekend Celebration - by Dr. Scott Palmer

(Originally published in the May 16, 2009 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)  

Calvin Borel, Bennie “Chip” Woolley Jr., and Mine That Bird stole the show in the 135th running of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). The upset victory was a Cinderella story if there ever was one. A hard-working, ex-rodeo-cowboy-turned-Thoroughbred trainer drives to Louisville from New Mexico hauling his Derby-bound horse. Borel rode Mine That Bird with a Street Sense-like determination that proved unbeatable in one of the most dramatic finishes in Derby history. Does it get any better than that?

Borel and Mind That Bird weren’t the only winners on the first Saturday in May. In the past year the Thoroughbred racing industry has been focused on reform initiatives designed to make racing safer for both horses and riders. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association Safety and Integrity Alliance has put in place an accreditation program that has stimulated racetracks to institute policies and capital improvements that have created a climate of increased awareness and dedication to the safety of our athletes.

Some have embraced and supported these initiatives. Others are skeptical of the progress made in the past year. They point to the lack of a national racing commissioner and persistent variability in rules and regulations among the 38 racing jurisdictions in the U.S. as shortfalls of this effort. Still others say all this work is a lot of talk and that nothing substantial has really changed. They say you can’t legislate morality or responsibility.

The events leading up to the running of the 2009 Kentucky Derby speak differently. 

Decisions by the connections of several Derby contenders demonstrate an increased awareness of safety issues and a commitment to “put the horse first.” Three horses were withdrawn as Derby starters in the week leading up to the race. Quality Road’s connections were unable to resolve a quarter crack. The connections of this horse could have managed him into the race. Instead they put the horse first. Win Willy was not entered due to an ankle problem, and Square Eddie was removed because of a shin injury. Most notably, the morning-line favorite in the race, I Want Revenge, was scratched in the early daylight hours of race day, not due to a fever or obvious lameness but because inflammation was found in the right front fetlock, an indication of an injury that could have placed him at risk had he raced.

Breeder and co-owner David Lanzman, trainer Jeff Mullins, and veterinarian Dr. Foster Northrop weren’t just talking a good game. They walked the walk. This is the first time in Derby history that the morning-line favorite was scratched the day of the race. They put the excitement, the hopes, and the dreams of the moment aside. They put the horse first. 

A number of heroes surround this year’s Derby. On the backside of the racetrack, people are focused on safety. They are taking greater individual responsibility for their actions. It’s true we haven’t accomplished all of our goals yet, but correcting the course of the racing industry is a massive endeavor and can’t be turned quite as quickly as we might like.

However, there is progress, and the horse is the beneficiary. Safety issues are at the forefront of racing. First you change the attitude, and the behavior follows. As long as responsible horsemen stay focused on the safety and welfare of the horse, we will continue to make progress toward our goals of reform. 

The Jockey Club, the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, the Association of Racing Commissioners International, and others have all been working to pass model rules that promote uniformity and increased safety and integrity. The AAEP’s recommendations on racehorse safety provided a veterinary viewpoint to insure that in the process of racing reform, the horse was the priority.
Horses are the better for all of these efforts.

We can all celebrate the first weekend in May. It was a remarkable weekend on a number of levels. Congratulations to Calvin Borel and the connections of Rachel Alexandra and Mine That Bird for two performances for the ages.

Behind the scenes, horsemen are working to improve the sport and put the horse first. We should celebrate that as well.

Dr. Scott Palmer is the owner of New Jersey Equine Clinic in Clarksburg, N.J., and is chair of the AAEP’s racing committee.

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