When it comes to the recent spate of breakdowns at Laurel, there’s a lot we don’t know. In racing, not knowing a lot usually means inertia wins, and nothing happens.
To its credit, the Maryland Racing Commission has nevertheless moved to take action to promote the safety of our horses and riders.
They’re right to do so, because although there’s a lot we don’t know, there’s a lot we do, and that area of knowledge should become the basis for making change.
in horses “fatal musuloskeletal injuries are [usually] the acute manifestation of pre-existing, milder injuries that develop over several weeks to months,” Dr. Susan Stover of the University of California-Davis testified to Congress in 2008.
That makes the pre-race vet exam all the more important. The Racing Commission’s directive to the state veterinarian’s office to expand the pre-race routine to match recommended best practices is the right move and may make a real difference. In the first two days of racing this week, 14 horses were scratched by the veterinarians, exactly double the seven they scratched in the first two days of racing last week.
The increase in purses has led to a jump in claiming activity at Laurel, and many observers are inclined to place the blame there. Whether that’s true or not, the fact is that Maryland has never before seen so many horses claimed from races. That’s a grand-scale experiment, and the racing community needs to do everything in its power to ensure that the safety and welfare of the horses remains paramount.
Some have argued for a rule that would require newly claimed horses to be raised in value for 30 days after the claim. The raise rule, however, will do little to protect horses, while serving as a backdoor tax on claimants. Only two of the 10 horses in the Commission’s study were making their first start after a claim, and it is likely — given recent form — that one or both would have run at the higher level, had it been mandated. Moreover, these rules typically affect just one race — the horse’s first off the claim.
Another oft-mentioned approach is to limit the purse size to some multiple of the claiming price, thus reducing the incentive to claim horses. The problem, however, is that the proposal ignores two important racing facts: first, that the expense of maintaining a horse is usually much greater than the cost of buying it and second, that the busiest horses on the grounds are invariably the least expensive — precisely because low purses mean that they must run frequently to have any chance of earning their keep.
A better approach is to remove — or at least minimize — the incentive for connections to “dump” unsound horses in an effort to get them claimed away. “We need to show that we want to race responsibly,” a backstretch vet practicing at Laurel told me. A rule allowing a claim to be voided if the horse breaks down or does not finish a race would help to do that.
In addition, the racing office should investigate the possibility of offering a wider array of “starter” events — non-claiming races restricted to claiming horses. For owners looking to hang onto their cheaper horses, these might provide a good way to do so.
Maryland is among the eight-state group that recently approved uniform medication policies that specify which drugs horses may ingest and limit raceday medication to Lasix only.
That’s the right move. While there are critics from both sides — those who feel it is too stringent and those who feel it’s too lax — harmonizing our regulations with those of our neighbors is a good step. Moreover, the change should prevent connections from “forum-shopping” for places where lax drug rules enable unsound horses to run.
Another step the Commission should consider is invoking a more rational system of penalties. The current system largely treats minor violations as relatively major and major violations as only slightly moreso. Neither makes sense. Racing’s black eye in the public mind has much less to do with which drugs are permitted and which prohibited and much more to do with a penalty system that allows habitual and egregious violators of the rules to continue to participate. That should change.
One of the real challenges in assessing the severity and causes of the recent spike in breakdowns is the paucity of data with which to compare it. The Commission should continue to analyze and publish information on every breakdown going forward.
It should also attempt to keep records of those horses that break down during morning works. That would give us a more complete data set and better enable us to assess what’s happening and how best to respond.
The good news is that the Racing Commission, and the racing community at large, are taking this problem seriously. The challenge now is to take the right steps to protect the health and welfare of our horses and the safety of the riders.