Culture Shift - by Tom LaMarra

It wasn’t too difficult to identify the themes that sprung from the sixth Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit July 8.

One, such as use of data to improve equine and human health and welfare, was apparent. Another was more subtle.

Consider the following comments made by various speakers:

“It’s more important to get a hold of information on what a horse does every day and what its treatment has been. Gaining the trust of these individuals is the difficult part.”—Dr. Tim Parkin on the need for transparency in equine medical records and training practices.

“There is nothing in the (vet) truck that is going to fix that without giving a horse more time. The opportunity for intervention means there is room for improvement.”—Dr. Megan Romano on her experiences as a Kentucky Horse Racing Commission veterinarian in dealing with some trainers.

“We need to be prepared and proactive, and continuing education is a key to that, especially when you realize many (racehorse) injuries we face are avoidable.”—Dr. Rick Arthur on the need for mandatory continuing education for trainers.

“I’m not necessarily a believer that horses are not as tough as they used to be. I think we just handle them quite differently today.”—Dr. Larry Bramlage on racing versus training.

The word “culture” doesn’t appear in any of the comments, but that’s what it’s all about—specifically, a need for change in the culture. And in horse racing, that generally doesn’t come quickly.

The Equine Injury Database accounts for 94% of all races in North America, which means 6% aren’t part of the program. If the program is that important to identifying racehorses at risk of fatal injury, why isn’t it at 100% participation?

And if access to additional information on racehorses from veterinarians, trainers, and owners is considered key to ramping up the EID, why is it so difficult to get? Granted there are some legal issues, but in light of Parkin’s presentation, it seems any new intelligence would make a difference.

The value of continuing education—particularly in an environment where the treatment of horses, or any animal for that matter, is under a microscope—is easy to recognize. Yet, as was noted during the summit, a national plan hasn’t been developed over the 10 years it has been discussed.

Bramlage peppered a discussion on bone remodeling with his own observations on the state of racing, including how horses now train a lot more than they race. One reason, he said, is obsession with trainers’ “strike rate.” It’s part of a culture that began to develop more than 10 years ago, and field size numbers suggest it hasn’t helped Thoroughbred racing.

So what brings about changes in culture? Is it commitment to change for the better and making an investment in the future, or is it fear and threats? In many cases it appears nothing seems to work, be it good or bad.

It’s not unattainable though. An industry official said recently the culture of racing in the Mid-Atlantic region has changed since the National Uniform Medication Program and the multiple medication violation penalty system was implemented in five states in less than two years.
It’s not perfect; people still break the rules and always will. It is, however, progress that stemmed from a change in policy and culture.
The summit was emceed by former jockey Donna Barton Brothers, now an analyst for NBC Sports, who began the day by discussing efforts to curtail racehorse fatalities on the track.

“I don’t think we’ll be able to get 100% there, but at least we’re moving in that direction,” she said. “I look forward to the day when we don’t have to cover another catastrophic breakdown on television.”

Barton Brothers is right. It never will be 100%, but as she noted, that doesn’t stop efforts to improve on the numbers. It’s simply about commitment to change for the betterment of the racehorse and the industry at large. 


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