Do the Right Thing - by Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the August 3, 2013 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)

By Eric Mitchell - @BH_EMitchell on Twitter

By Eric Mitchell The public outcry over the injury and subsequent euthanizing of grade I winner-turned-claimer Monzante at age 9 shows just how complex animal welfare issues are for racehorses.

Monzante, a gelding by Maria’s Mon, won the grade I Eddie Read Handicap at Del Mar and placed second in the Charlie Whittingham Memorial Handicap (gr. IT) at Hollywood Park in 2008. After two years of unsuccessful performances and a single victory in an allowance race, the horse began a downward slide, his career ending in a $4,000 claimer at Evangeline Downs, where on July 20 he fractured the sesamoids in his right front foot. Trainer/owner Jackie Thacker got Monzante back to his barn following the race, where Thacker and his private vet determined the horse needed to be put down because he was suffering.

The euthanization of Monzante released a high-voltage, social media-fueled furor comparable to the reaction following Eight Belles’ breakdown in the 2008 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). With Eight Belles the outrage became focused on anabolic steroid use, even though the filly had not been given steroids. Still, her tragic death led to the relatively quick ban of anabolic steroid use in racing.

For Monzante, the issues are much trickier. Racing fans expressed a gut-level disgust at a grade I winner being passed from owner to owner until he had dropped toward the bottom of the claiming ranks—not quite the bottom but pretty close. The calls for reform have included eliminating claiming races, forcing the retirement of graded stakes winners when their careers start to wane, requiring more effective pre-race exams, and encouraging more industry support for retirement/aftercare facilities.

Let’s take them one at a time.

The elimination of claiming races would completely gut the North American racing industry as we know it and would likely shut it down entirely. Claiming races, which provide the means for an owner to buy a racehorse in training, account for 67.3% of all races in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico, according to statistics maintained by The Jockey Club. Around 38% of all purse money is distributed through claiming races, which is more than $452.5 million annually. These statistics do not include maiden claiming races that make up nearly 19% of all races and almost 12% of North American purses.

As to the forced retirement of horses, there are likely teams of lawyers sitting on drafts of cease and desist orders just waiting for someone to try. While it offends some fans’ sensibilities of right and wrong, horses are private property and how they’re cared for is largely at the discretion of their owners. We have animal cruelty laws, but in Monzante’s case, Thacker had just brought the horse back off a long layoff for a “mental break” and said the gelding had come back refreshed. Monzante then passed a pre-race veterinary exam and was determined to be racing sound. Thacker said he only raced Monzante in the claiming race to make him eligible for a starter allowance, where he thought he would be competitive.

It deserves mentioning, however, that Louisiana is inconsistent in how it handles the painkiller phenylbutazone, which Monzante had been given 36 hours before the race (the state allows its administration up to 24 hours out). In 2010 the Association of Racing Commissioners International recommended that all states adopt a minimum allowable Bute level of two micrograms per milliliter, down from the five micrograms/ml that had been the standard. The lower threshold had been supported by regulatory vets who felt the higher Bute levels prevented accurate pre-race exams. Louisiana tried to adopt the lower level in 2012 but got push-back from the Louisiana Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. As it stands today, Louisiana has a two microgram/ml threshold only for graded and listed stakes. In all other races the five micrograms/ml level is allowed. Because safety of the horses is the goal in lowering the Bute level, the type of race should not matter. Safety and integrity should be equally applied. 

This brings us to the issue of aftercare and welfare. Despite the growth of retirement and second-career facilities, it should not come as a surprise that what’s available today can accommodate only a small percentage of the actual need. The industry requires a long-term strategy for managing the Thoroughbred population. We need to create viable options for owners that are supported by a stable source of funding. These options then need to be vigorously promoted and lauded. It should be a badge of honor for owners to provide aftercare for their racehorses—as prestigious as winning a stakes.

Because in the end, horse care comes down to personal responsibility, which can’t be legislated.

Let’s make it easy and rewarding for owners to do the right thing.

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