AAEP releases guidelines on protecting Thoroughbred health

Standardized examinations, uniform medication rules recommended
Published on March 15, 2009
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The American Association of Equine Practitioners issued recommendations Feb. 16 that provide veterinary guidance on care of racehorses and issues challenging the racing industry. 

The white paper, "Putting the Horse First: Veterinary Recommendations for the Safety and Welfare of the Thoroughbred Racehorse," focuses on four areas: the racing business model, the veterinarian-owner-trainer relationship, medication, and the public perception of racing. Changes to the structure of claiming races and medication usage in horses intended for sale at public auction also are addressed.  

Thoroughbred horse and rider

Key points in the white paper include:

  • continued identification and implementation of procedures and strategies that will substantially reduce the injury rate of horses
  • standardization and enhancement of prerace and postrace veterinary examinations with mandatory cross-jurisdictional sharing of information
  • universal adoption in all racing jurisdictions of the Association of Racing Commissioners International's model medication rules, which state that no medication should be administered on race day except for furosemide
  • increased racetrack security to ensure compliance by all racing participants with medication rules
  • complete transparency for the veterinarian-trainer-owner relationship in all aspects of health care decisions
  • development in all racing jurisdictions of a program for the rehabilitation, retraining, and adoption of horses whose racing careers have ended

The white paper was developed by the AAEP's Racing Task Force, a group comprising private racetrack practitioners, regulatory veterinarians, and veterinary specialists. The AAEP board recently converted the task force into a standing committee called the Racing Committee, with Dr. Scott Palmer of Clarksburg, N.J., serving as chair. The association created the task force in July 2008 to evaluate safety and welfare issues affecting Thoroughbred horse racing in response to the country's outcry following the catastrophic injury of Eight Belles in the 2008 Kentucky Derby.

"Our premise is very simple: What is good for the horse is good for racing," explained Dr. Palmer. "In a unique climate of widespread industry commitment to fix what is wrong with racing, we have made every effort to put the horse first in that process. It is fair to say that particular recommendations will resonate with some individuals and alienate others within the industry."

As an example, Dr. Palmer mentioned the practice by some racing secretaries to use stall allotments to put pressure on trainers to enter horses in races, creating larger fields. This can be harmful for the horses, Dr. Palmer said, particularly if they are not ready to be entered.

Some individuals wonder why veterinarians are commenting on the business model of racing. "If you look at all five of the reforms proposed by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's Safety and Integrity Alliance (improvements to medication and testing policies, guidelines for injury reporting and prevention, safety research, providing a safer racing environment and postracing care for retired racehorses) ... all five of them are veterinary medical issues. There's an enormous opportunity for veterinarians to be helpful in this process of modifying and overhauling the racing industry," Dr. Palmer said. "There'll be a lot of debate, and we want to bring a veterinary point of view to the table."

The AAEP looks to rely heavily on racing and horse organizations to implement the recommendations outlined in the paper. The AAEP has no enforcement authority but does offer to provide support, Dr. Palmer said. He added that one of the committee's biggest concerns with the recommendations is industry decision-makers saying they can't afford to implement them.

"Our point of view is we need to find a way, because if we don't, the economic consequences will be even more catastrophic," Dr. Palmer said. "There's economic pressure that limits our ability to do it all at one time, but as long as we move forward in one direction together, the horse will be the better for it."

One group on which the AAEP may be able to rely is the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, which formed the Safety and Integrity Alliance this past year to deal with many of the issues raised in the white paper. Alex Waldrop, president and CEO of the NTRA, had praise for the association and paper.

"We applaud the AAEP for its assistance to the Thoroughbred industry in determining ways we can all put the horse first," Waldrop said. "The AAEP plays a key role in promoting the health and safety of our equine athletes."

The committee's work is not done. Its next agenda item is to produce best practice guidelines for racetrack practitioners, including medication handling and administration protocols, medical records and billing procedures, and guidelines for communication with owners and trainers. The AAEP Racing Committee has formed seven subcommittees to address a wide range of racing issues, including determining how or whether these initial recommendations apply to other breeds, such as Standardbreds and Quarter Horses, and modifying them accordingly.

Visit www.aaep.org for more information.