Confessions of a Racetrack Veterinarian
“Every day, I almost quit”.
Kate Papp has loved horses for as long as she can remember. That’s why her decision to become a veterinarian specializing in treating racehorses turned into an agonizing career choice — one that she says forced her almost daily to wonder if it’s possible to do her job and still adhere to her professional oath to protect animals and prevent suffering.
“Every day, I almost quit,” she says of her mental debate, which she describes as springing from a culture that forced her to unnecessarily inject horses with painkillers and other medications. “Every day, I decide I don’t want to see 2-year-olds that haven’t even run yet be euthanized in a dirt pit at the back of the racetrack because somebody trained them too hard, medicated them too much, pushed them too far.”
Papp, 31, is part of a growing movement in the horse racing industry that aims to reverse what they and other critics see as an over-reliance on legal therapeutic drugs to keep horses training and racing – a practice that they say puts horses’ lives and health at risk.
“Everything that’s given to the horse is with the main goal in mind, which is having them run well, win races, pay well to the owners and to the trainers,” she said. “And anything that they can give the horses – whether it be legal, illegal, even non-necessary substances – they will do … in an attempt to have a winner or improve their horse.”
The medication issue has moved to the forefront during this year’s Triple Crown, which continues Saturday with the Preakness Stakes at Baltimore’s Pimlico Racecourse, as a result of an undercover investigation by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) of top thoroughbred trainer Steve Asmussen.
While not commenting specifically on the Asmussen case, Papp said trainers often do bear responsibility for the overmedication of their horses.
“Basically the trainers fancy themselves to be not only trainers of horses and their fitness but of their overall health regimen,” said Papp, who testified before Congress in 2012 in support of central regulation of horse racing and implementation of rules “to deter the overuse and abuse of drugs.” “They believe in certain medications because they’ve been used by … people they know, people they’ve heard from … (and) they will make the dictation of what medications the horses are to receive.”
The problem, she said, is that they fall into the habit of giving the drugs preventively, not to treat a specific ailment.
“They don’t want to spend the money to know what’s wrong,” she said. “They just want you to fix it.”
Papp said she encountered that mindset when she started her career as an assistant vet at the Fair Hill training facility in Maryland.
“I’d be required to go to the barn, look at the horse and administer the medications or substances of treatments that were requested by the trainer,” she said, adding that those medications most often were pain-killers, anti-bleeding medications and anti-inflammatory drugs, including cortical steroids injected directly into joints.
“It felt awful to waste medication that has potential side effects – bad side effects – and giving it to a horse that we don’t even know if we were giving it to the right place or not,” Papp said.
In a statement to NBC News, Fair Hill Manager Sally Goswell said, “I am not involved with the in barn care of horses except to make every effort to provide the best track conditions possible on a daily basis for training. The trainers and owners of the horses here, along with their veterinarians, manage the horses care.”
Papp said the indiscriminate use of legal therapeutic drugs often “masks” injuries and can lead to fatal breakdowns during training or racing.
She recalled one incident in particular, after she had left Fair Hill and opened her own practice, that she said drove her to re-evaluate that approach.
After she diagnosed a horse with a stress fracture in the hind leg at a racetrack in Pennsylvania, the horse’s trainer promised to rest it for three months to allow the injury to heal, she said. But the owner transferred the horse to another trainer, who ignored her advice, gave the horse painkillers and then entered it in a race.
“That horse raced and was pulled up with a broken leg, with his leg dangling, and had to be euthanized on the racetrack,” she said. “… It was crushing, because I felt like I had notified people … what was going on with the horse and no one seemed to care. … Nobody cared and that horse died because of it.” Read more >>