Another glam season of horse racing has ended but inquiries of fatalities and the well-being of horses lingers.
Article cross-posted from San Diego News Network
By HOA QUACH
Friday, September 11, 2009
Well-groomed horses, speedy races, million-dollar-stakes and gaudy hats define the Del Mar Races year after year; but few consider a dark side to the glamour, notably the 13 horses euthanized this season alone.
For equine enthusiasts, when it comes to the races, stakes are higher than the $1 million Pacific Classic. The well-being of the horses is preeminent in some minds; the animals’ breeding, their diets, and, for hundreds of them, the euthanasia that accompanies a career-ending injury.
Madame Kiawah, for example, broke her right front sesamoids during a race last week. Considered an irreparable injury, the four-year-old filly was immediately euthanized.
The race season ended Wednesday with 12 horses sharing Madame Kiawah’s fate. Eight were put down last year, and in 2007 six were put to sleep.
Digging back further, the number of horses that were injured, then euthanized between 2001 and 2006 were 105 (see gray box), before a state mandate designed to protect horses from injuries required the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club to install a synthetic track called Polytrack to replace the dirt.
“The horse racing industry has not been transparent,” said Nancy Heitzeg, a long-time researcher of the world horse racing industry with a focus on the U.S. “The fatality rate is not clear and the U.S. has very lax medication laws compounded with other medication laws. There’s really no enforcement or oversight.”
State by state
California’s racing guidelines are strict, compared to racetracks in other states said longtime horse trainer Gary Mandella. Racetracks in Arkansas, Michigan and Nebraska don’t track horse fatalities at all, and only one track in Florida does, according to the Associated Press. In California, deaths totaled to 759 horses from 2003 to 2005, according to The New York Times . That prompted the state law requiring Polytrack.
“California is very strict with its laws,” Mandella said. “You’ll find some horse owners don’t race in California because of the laws.”
Without a national organization overseeing racing – like football has with the National Football League (NFL) – laws vary by state.
Horses in California must be inspected the morning of every race the horse will participate in, according to Michigan State University’s Animal Legal and Historical Center. In addition, members of the California Horse Racing Board screen horses as they enter the race track.
Another law unique to California prohibits owners from training horses through “poling and tripping,” a technique that uses “wire, pole, stick, rope or other object or apparatus whatsoever to cause a horse to fall or lose its balance.” This technique of training a horse is most common among show horses who are forced to jump over fences – trainers would hit the horse on the hind legs to make the horse think he or she was hitting the fence and would need to jump higher.
Similarly, California is one of few states that does not have a law protecting horse owners from “frivolous lawsuits arising out of horse accidents that could not have been avoided,” according to The University of Vermont’s American Association for Horsemanship Safety.
Breeding a winning horse
Speedy horses are in and one way owners ensure speed is by breeding.
One long-time breeder is upset with the industry’s drive to breed faster horses, as opposed to “sound” horses with stronger bones. As reported by Courier-Journal.com in Kentucky, Arthur Hancock believes “horsemen – including himself – have contributed to weakening the thoroughbred bloodline through breeding and racing practices.”
The Journal also reported: “Many share Hancock’s opinions that the modern thoroughbred has suffered through an obsession with speed over soundness — and market forces that make it financially smart to breed horses earlier, before they’ve proved their durability.
“Speed is the most coveted trait in American racing even though it tests the outer limits of a horse’s bones, tendons and ligaments. When breeders and buyers must choose between speed on one hand and stamina and durability on the other, there’s often little question which way they will go.”
Frank Mitchell, author of Race Horse Breeding Theories, says otherwise. He writes in his book that speed is not a gene that can be inherited and must be taught. He writes: “Racing ability is not a genetic trait like coat color. So it does not transmit from parent to offspring in the same way that a purely genetic characteristic would do. Athletic ability in the thoroughbred is the result of many traits, many factors, and many relationships among the horse and his caretakers, health, environment and so forth. ”
Mitchell uses an example of a horse named Stymie from the 1940s, trained by Hirsch Jacobs. He writes that Stymie was not a fast horse but improved his speed over the coming years, then went on to become a race horse.
“Stymie’s physique held part of the answer. He needed to grow and strengthen, and when turned out in the late 1944, at the back end of his three-year-old season, the son of Equestrian improved significantly from the rest and came back a better horse.”
A Del Mar trainer, Mandella thinks the breeding business is a “give and take” industry. Mandella — who garnered more than $600,000 in “purses” in 2008 along with his father Richard Mandella, who garnered nearly $2 million – said breeders could “make an awful lot of money” selling a horse. He also noted that horses may have been stronger in past years when racing wasn’t as prominent.
“There’s an educated guess from the older generation that the horses they trained in the 70s were much sturdier with much stronger bones than what we see now,” Mandella said. “It’s a theory but it’s an educated [theory].”
He also noted that the average horse races more today than in past years.
Medications and diet
Breeding is one of about 10 factors that come into play as to why horses are getting hurt on the racetracks, said Heitzeg, who is also a sociology professor at St. Catherine University in Minnesota.
The real reason why horses are getting injured easily and thus, being euthanized is because of medications, says Heitzeg.
“There’s too much reliance on medication,” Heitzeg said. “There’s a lot of pressure about training and racing two-year-olds and medicating them.”
Although anabolic steroids were banned last year in California and other states, Heitzeg noted other drugs are still being used and loopholes exist for horse trainers/owners to use the drug still.
Lasix, phenylbutazone and corticosteroids are the three most prominent legal drugs being used in racetracks across the country right now. Lasix prevents the bleeding of horses during races while phenylbutazone is an anti-inflammatory drug and corticosteroids are to help with pain and inflammation. Too many medications impact a horse’s health.
In a New York Times article, California Horse Racing Board’s equine medical director Rick Arthur said the concern of all three of these types of legal drugs is still alive.
“He said industry concern focuses on three major types of legal drugs. One is Lasix; a race-day drug many in the industry agree is beneficial to the horse because it prevents bleeding in the lungs, a common problem.
“The second type is nonsteroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs, typically phenylbutazone, flunixin and ketoprofen. Most racing jurisdictions allow the use of one of those drugs over a prescribed period of time before a horse’s race. Arthur said that a number of veterinarians who examine horses for soundness before they race are concerned that the presence of those drugs compromises their ability to properly evaluate horses.
“The third type of drugs most frequently mentioned as being overused are steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, which Arthur described as ‘cortisone-type drugs’ typically used in a joint to decrease inflammation.”
Compared to other countries, stricter medication laws are in place in the U.S.
“All other racing jurisdictions in the world have more much stringent laws on medication use or a complete ban,” Heitzig said. “Statistics show horses die more in the U.S. than anywhere else.”
Although, The Jockey Club and other key players have supported the ban of anabolic steroids – Heitzeg thinks more could be done for the well-being of the horses.
“This is my opinion; if they [industry leaders] really wanted to protect the well-being of horses there would be a medication ban,” she said. “That would include not only more rigorous testing for illegal substances; it would include more thorough vet checks prior to the racing.”
But, Mandella said laws are already strict in California. He also told SDNN horses have a healthy, protein-enriched diet. He said his horses are given oats, protein, hay and electrolytes (an ingredient found in sports drinks).
The “dirty little secret,” aka slaughterhouse
Slaughtering a horse is illegal in California but not across the country, and there are “loopholes,” according to Heitzeg.
According to Mandella, the average age of a race horse can be anywhere from three to five years, although there are exceptions. After a horse’s racing career, it really is the owner’s decision what to do with the horse. Heitzeg, who said she was extremely concerned about the number of horses slaughtered each year, said about 20 percent of horses exported and then slaughtered are race horses.
Since 1980, more than four million horses in the U.S. have been slaughtered, according to the Equine Protection Network. Another 500,000 horses were exported for slaughtering between the years of 1990 and 2000.
Efforts have been made and continue to be on the horizon to ban horse slaughtering. The bill, known as the Conyers Burton Prevention of Equine Cruelty Act or H.R. 503, is authored by Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Dan Burton (R-Ind.). The bill, which was presented in January, remains in limbo along with the senate version authored by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) [Note: Senate companion bill to HR 503 is S. 727-Tuesday's Horse].
Heitzeg, who defines the slaughter housing industry as a “dirty little secret,” says efforts to implement a federal ban on the industry have been seen the past 15 years to no avail. And for states, like California, which does have a ban, loopholes exist.
“If the Thoroughbred Racing Association really cared about the well-being of race horses, they would make efforts to pass the bill or take a stand,” Heitzeg said. “Instead, the bills have never succeeded in passing.”
Longer races, new tracks
Although the debate about breeding, medications and slaughterhouses continue, Mac McBride, director of media at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, said efforts are being made within the industry to prevent horse injuries.
He said many racetracks are working to have longer races where horses are less likely to get hurt. He uses a marathon runner as an example, in which he or she gradually gains speed rather than making a sprint in a short race – where one is more likely to get hurt.
But to implement a law requiring all racetracks to abide by certain guidelines is difficult and leads back to the notion that there isn’t a national oversight team for horse racing unlike the NFL or MLB.
“The industry is shaped that way [to have short races],” McBride said. “There have always been short races. Not all short races are bad. All sprint races or a preponderous number of sprint races are not good. I think it’s changing.
“You got to remember, this is a national business involving hundreds of thousands of horses, hundreds of thousands of people,” McBride said. “This is something that gets eased in over years. It’s going to take years to do it. People are starting to see the value of old ways – it’s slowly but surely moving in the right direction.”
In addition, synthetic race tracks are easier on the horses’ bodies, said McBride.
The Polytrack at the Del Mar Racetrack is “just like cookie dough,” he said.
“It’s almost like running on a mattress,” McBride said. “There are two key things with this. Number one, it’s consistent [won't alter with changes of the weather]. In addition, there is that cushion that takes the shock out of it for the horses and the riders.”
On a recent KPBS program, CARB equine medical director Rick Arthur said stats show an overall reduction of injuries.
“Actually, the track at Del Mar is one of the safer of the synthetic surfaces. Hollywood Park’s been relatively safe. Again, compared to dirt, we’ve seen a 40 percent reduction in racing fatalities. Training fatalities, it – the information is equivocal and, certainly, trainers complain about seeing other injuries but in terms of racing fatalities, it’s actually quite dramatic and is fairly even across all of them. But all of them, like we see at Del Mar, have had a tendency to wax and wane.” But one study may prove otherwise. According to The Los Angeles Times, a UC Davis study showed more horses are injuring their rear hinds more often, on synthetic tracks.
“In statistics compiled from 2008, nine thoroughbred deaths resulted from left rear injuries and 10 from right rear injuries on synthetic tracks. There was only one death on dirt from a hind rear injury, according to the study.”
Despite the possible shift in the industry to have longer races or synthetic tracks, Heitzeg believes too much racing is still hard on horses.
“Another real problem with racing in the U.S… too much racing, year-round racing, which then leads to pressure to fill the race charts, tracks with trainers, trainers with horses – to get out there and fill a slot.”
Prepping for injuries
Research is underway to possibly prevent or spot injuries in race horses early on.
Wayne McIlwraith, the director of Colorado State University’s Equine Orthopaedic Research Center, is working on a blood test that could tell trainers if their horses have injuries, according to The Denver Post.
“In his role at CSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, he conducts and oversees research in the quest to make the sport safer, primarily in two ways: a) coming up with and refining testing procedures to detect bone problems in racehorses that can make them prone to such breakdowns as the one the filly, Eight Belles, suffered at the Kentucky Derby, leading to her being given lethal injections on the track; and, b) researching racing surfaces, whether dirt or synthetic.
The blood test issue is complex, but in his office on the south side of the CSU campus Friday, McIlwraith said researchers have achieved up to ‘80 percent predictability’ in finding the horses with microdamage that can lead to something worse, or even catastrophic.”
The well-being of horses remains a debate across the country but one thing is certain, as trainer Mandella said, horses will get hurt and their health is at the discretion of humans.
“Sometimes horses get hurt…but the final decision is up to the owners to take care of them.”
Wayne McIIwraith and the Thoroughbred Racing Association did not respond to requests for interviews. Hoa Quach is the SDNN political editor.