There were more than 33,000 races for Thoroughbreds in the U.S. in 2022, but if you asked anyone to name just three of them, chances are they would be the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
They represent the seven most important minutes to the sport on an annual basis.
But tens of hours of television coverage and countless articles and social media posts fill the gaps leading to those seven minutes. Points accrual for the 2023 Derby began in September. Pari-mutuel futures betting in November.
At the least, the regulatory arm of the sport – be it the new Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, the individual state commissions, or a combination of the two – should issue formal updates regarding the health and soundness of horses entered in the races which attract the most public attention.
Insights offered by regulatory bodies, providing factual details which media, horseplayers and fans alike can consume, eliminates speculation and repetitive inaccuracies that take hold, particularly across social media, while proving to a wider audience what many inside the sport already know – veterinary scrutiny has never been stronger!
Most often, the only time the public hears from a veterinarian is after an injury has occurred during a nationally televised race.
That’s bad for the sport, the public and even the vets themselves.
Safety and welfare initiatives are welcomed without question, but regulators must go the extra step and communicate with the public about the horses and their fitness to compete in our most important races. Absent that, “communication” will occur regardless – first as whispers amongst some insiders, then tweets and texts that spiral endlessly, all while the truth is likely sitting in regulatory silence.
If a horse entered for the Kentucky Derby has a foot bruise, like Forte in advance of this year’s race, it should be reported by regulators.
If a horse entered for the Preakness has a cut which required stitches, like Mage in advance of this year’s race, it should be reported by regulators.
While veterinary scrutiny has increased, communication has not. U.S. racing has fallen short in the transparency space, both this year, and many years in the past.
Fortunately, there are some simple examples to follow if American racing wishes to improve.
MELBOURNE CUP PROTOCOLS ENHANCED
Contested over two miles on the first Tuesday of November, the Melbourne Cup is “the race that stops a nation.” But after a spate of in-race injuries which led to several horses being humanely euthanized in recent years, racing administrators determined far more enhanced measures of veterinary scrutiny and communication to the public were necessary.
For the last two runnings of the great race, veterinarians from the Australian state’s racing regulatory body (Racing Victoria) conducted at least two official pre-race physical veterinary inspections of all horses entered, along with follow-ups if necessary. Lower leg CT scans, done prior to final entries, were also required. In 2022, the first pre-race inspections were conducted on October 27 and October 28 with final entries due on October 29. A second inspection was held on October 31, the day before the race itself on November 1.
Racing Victoria issued press releases with findings from the veterinarians on each day to keep all stakeholders apprised – of horses that were passed fit as-is, required further inspections, or were deemed unsuitable to race.
From its initial inspection on October 27, Racing Victoria included the following:
“The Ciaron Maher and David Eustace-trained Gold Trip passed today’s inspection however the horse displayed some heat in the right front foot. The horse is suitable to race in its current condition however will be re-examined tomorrow as a precaution to ensure it remains so.”
The regulators provided a further update just one day later.
“The Ciaron Maher and David Eustace-trained Gold Trip was passed yesterday, however the horse displayed some heat in the right front foot and was re-examined today as a precaution. There was no heat present upon re-inspection today and the horse remains in a suitable condition to accept.”
Gold Trip entered the Melbourne Cup, carried top-weight, and was victorious at odds of 20-1, taking home the majority of the $5.3 million purse.
Some other details in the various reports leading to last year’s race included:
- “The following 29 horses have been deemed suitable to accept…tomorrow (29 October) having passed the mandatory CT scan of their distal limbs and the first of two pre-race veterinary examinations…”
- “The Robert Hickmott-trained Schabau was re-inspected today after presenting lame in the left front when inspected yesterday. The horse’s condition has improved, but it remains unsuitable to race at this time. Schabau will be re-inspected for a final time prior to 7.30am tomorrow.”
- “The Marcel Weiss-trained Loft was lame in the left front when inspected today. Subsequent to that inspection, the stable’s private veterinarian conducted an ultrasound on the horse’s left front and diagnosed a tendon injury. Accordingly, Loft has been withdrawn from the Melbourne Cup.”
- “The Ben and JD Hayes-trained Makram was not inspected after it was deemed unsuitable to contest the Melbourne Cup by RV Veterinary Services. Reports received from the members of the international imaging panel who reviewed Makram’s CT scan results indicate that the horse is at heightened risk of injury.”
HONG KONG REPORTS MORE FOR BIGGEST RACES
Australia is not alone in keeping stakeholders across the sport aware of key veterinary issues in the lead-up to big races. The Hong Kong Jockey Club, known for a high-level of transparency for all of its races, goes a further step in keeping the public aware for its two big international race days.
In 2016, Christophe Clement-trained Pure Sensation was scratched by the stewards after regulatory veterinarians were unsatisfied with the horse’s progress following a bruised hoof. An image of the three press releases the HKJC issued in advance of that race are pictured below.
PROGRESS IS POSSIBLE
Enhanced veterinary oversight must be met with a degree of transparency to the public that U.S. racing has yet to create. Around the racing world, such reporting is met without controversy. Regulators are supposed to act in the best interest of the horses and the public consuming the sport.
Start with the Triple Crown races, expand to the Breeders’ Cup and all Grade 1 events.
Horse owners and trainers might not be enthused by such details becoming public, but those brief periods will fade as such practices become business-as-usual in subsequent years, replicating other global leaders in the sport.
Progress is possible and not particularly difficult to implement. There’s no time like the present.