Keystone Kops - by Eric Mitchell

Thoroughbred racehorses require some basic care—food, water, a clean environment, regular exercise, and veterinary care.

It is unacceptable, therefore, that we have racetracks and horsemen’s groups in this country not fulfilling one of those basic needs—veterinary care—during training hours.

The issue of having a vet on call during training hours is not new, but it was pushed painfully to the forefront Sept. 18 at Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course near Grantville, Pa., when a 4-year-old filly named Langfurs Answer broke down on the track, collapsed, and lay waiting to be euthanized for almost an hour. (see The Blood-Horse of Oct. 1, page 2623).

Lots of finger-pointing followed.

The Pennsylvania Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association said it has been pushing the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission for years to mandate veterinary care during training hours.

“We don’t have any jurisdiction,” said Todd Mostoller, the Pennsylvania HBPA’s executive director. “It is not our property, and we are not the regulator.”

A state racing commission spokeswoman said racetrack executives were notified in a memo last year that they had an obligation to provide “ready access to emergency veterinary care in the event of an accident or illness during training and racing hours.” The obligation, however, is not part of state law and has not been enforced.

Penn National did not have any official comment on the incident, but a racetrack executive who spoke anonymously pointed out the track doesn’t own the horses and that trainers are responsible for veterinary care.

Noted Dr. Mary Scollay, equine medical director for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission: “The trainer should know whether his vet is going to be on the grounds. If I was a client, I would expect my vet would be on the grounds or readily available during a time when my horses are greatest at risk.”  

Like most other issues, it comes down to money. Who is going to pay for a veterinarian to be on call for at least four hours in the morning? In some racing jurisdictions we can see how cost would be an issue, but in Pennsylvania the argument over money is weak. During fiscal year 2011, Penn National’s gross terminal revenue from slots machines exceeded $788 million. Out of this amount Penn National contributed more than $93.8 million to the Pennsylvania Race Horse Development Fund. That is just Penn National. We’ve been told a veterinarian could be paid $50 per hour to be on call, which means, at most, a track would have to pay $73,000 to make a vet available year-round for four hours a day. The revenue from a single slot machine could be set aside to cover that.

But even the cost is a non-issue because several racetracks are providing veterinary coverage during training hours by asking the vets who work at the racetrack to work rotating shifts. If a vet wants to work on the backside of Penn National, he or she takes a turn. It’s part of the job.

What really has been the barrier to providing racehorses with adequate veterinary care during training is a recognition of its importance and the will to get it done.

Since the Sept. 18 incident, Penn National has announced it will now require pre-race veterinary exams beginning Oct. 4. It is a laudable step for Penn National, but we agree with the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s president and CEO Alex Waldrop that it doesn’t go far enough. Every racetrack should require veterinary care be available during training hours, and the racing commissions should enforce it.

It’s a basic need that must be provided.

Keeneland’s Milestone

It seems appropriate that Keeneland’s September yearling sale, which concluded on the eve of the association’s 75th anniversary, exceeded all expectations. The Thoroughbred industry’s free fall and contraction after the 2008 world economic crash left many wondering how long hard times would endure. The 2011 marathon auction assuaged any fear that the bottom had not been reached as all major indicators pointed upward.

Keeneland’s founders took an inordinate gamble in 1935 when they bought 147½ acres of sportsman Jack Keene’s property on Versailles Road. The Great Depression gripped the country. Proud people stood in food and employment lines and packed up their automobiles to chase miscast dreams out West. Yet co-founder Hal Price Headley and his partners persevered and Keeneland, with its community- and horse-driven mission, opened its gates to thousands of race-starved fans Oct. 15, 1936. Stories endure that Headley would hand-count the day’s receipts, so fearful that the undertaking would go bust. Keeneland did end its first season with a loss—$3.47. By the following year Keeneland recorded an $8,000 profit.

In a way Keeneland’s history has come full circle. The span of 75 years has seen Keeneland become the world’s leading auction company, a major racetrack, and an innovator, and the same doggedness that got the place built has seen Keeneland and the Thoroughbred industry through these last few turbulent years.

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