Equine Safety Lessons Should be Learned the First Time

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This is my Frankly Speaking column from today's (March 12) issue of BloodHorse Daily. If you haven't already downloaded the app or subscribed to the free BloodHorse Daily, you should.


I didn't get far into the California Horse Racing Board's assessment of the spike in Thoroughbred fatalities last year at Santa Anita Park before I came across a recommendation that I most assuredly agreed with. It also pained me.

"Track veterinarians and examining veterinarians should be under the direct supervision of the official veterinarian or equine medical director (EMD)," read the CHRB report, which put forward ideas to protect horses going forward based on its findings.

That recommendation followed the CHRB report assessment that, previously, this was not occurring. It noted, "Organizationally the track veterinarian and examining veterinarians being supervised by the racing association's racing office poses an inherent conflict."

The recommendation makes perfect sense. While racing offices are concerned about horse safety, they're also concerned about maintaining field sizes--larger fields draw more handle. The recommended change would eliminate any conflict of interest.

So why did my head hurt after reading this? It's because I also thought this was a good recommendation the first time I read it--nearly eight years ago.

After a rash of breakdowns at Aqueduct Racetrack in the winter of 2011-12, the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, upon a recommendation by the New York Racing Association, appointed a team of industry experts to conduct an investigation. The 209-page report that followed in September 2012 from the New York Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety served up this recommendation: "The NYRA organizational structure, which has the veterinary department reporting and accountable to the racing office, is a critical conflict-of-interest."

That recommendation followed a detailed assessment of the problem, including: "The accountability of the veterinary department to the racing office creates a critical conflict-of-interest that can impact the veterinarians' decisions. In other racing jurisdictions, this conflict is avoided by having all regulatory veterinarians employed by the racing commission or the state regulatory body. "The execution of scratches by racing office personnel, rather than the stewards, establishes an untenable and inappropriate dynamic in which laypersons resist or overtly challenge the recommendations of regulatory veterinarians. Field size, or the economic impact of a scratch, must never be a consideration when an examining veterinarian assesses a horse's suitability to race."

The recommendation followed findings that "the Task Force learned of a trainer who, dissatisfied with a NYRA veterinarian's assessment of his horse, arranged through the racing office for the veterinarian in question to no longer perform pre-race exams on his horses. The Task Force was made aware of other instances in which NYRA veterinarians were instructed to re-evaluate horses having been recommended for a scratch. There were also reports of scratch recommendations being refused or overturned by the racing office."

But in racing, it seems, it's never "problem identified, problem solved, next problem." Instead, it's too often "problem identified, problem solved in one state, problem still a problem in another state." A lesson learned in New York may not carry over to California, or vice versa.

Seeing how he is specifically named in the New York task force report raising concern about this issue, it would seem that P.J. Campo, who served as vice president of racing for Santa Anita's owner, The Stronach Group, during last year's problematic winter/spring meet, would have been familiar with the issue of concern. Campo, who was out of his TSG position before the end of the year, worked in the NYRA racing office at the time Aqueduct had its rash of breakdowns.

The New York task force report noted, "The veterinary department functions under the oversight of, and is accountable, to the NYRA vice president and director of racing P.J. Campo, who also serves as the racing secretary. The organizational structure with the veterinary department accountable to the racing department establishes a potentially critical conflict of interest. "The racing office attempts to generate full fields, as wagering handle is directly linked to field size. Racetrack management has a vested interest in maximizing field size. Conversely, field size, or the economic impact of a scratch, must never be a consideration when an examining veterinarian assesses a horse's suitability to race."

Lessons in New York that followed the deaths of horses were not followed in California. Now racing has another report and another recommendation. The sport can't afford to keep relearning lessons.

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