Summary of the Summit: Racetrack Environment & Safe Training Practices

This session began with a video of a training center in Japan; horses there train over multiple surfaces and over courses of different lengths, and all training is monitored by Japan Racing Association officials.  The process is “highly regulated,” and riders are identified by the colors of their helmet.  The color of the saddlecloth indicates the age of the horse being trained.

Trainer Neil Howard said that training surfaces affect trainers “24/7.”  “We have to adjust everything we do, every day,” he said, noting that he trains in New York, at Keeneland, and at Churchill.  He indicated that training on synthetics is not affected as much by weather as other surfaces are, and he said that he writes all of his training schedules “in pencil” so that he can adjust for rain and cold.  He observed that training on synthetics helps him stay on schedule, but said that he does most of his training on dirt.

He also said that “it’s not a problem” training on a sealed track, and that it’s great to be able to communicate with the track superintendent to get a sense of the plan for track maintenance.

Trainer Ken McPeek said that what he learned about training in Australia “opened his eyes,” noting the availability of five or six surfaces and the ability to train clockwise or counter-clockwise.  “We could go in any direction,” he said, and said that North American trainers are “handcuffed.”  He said that he trained “right-handed” (clockwise) on his farm.  “We need the opportunity to train right-handed sometimes,” he declared.

He indicated that he has problems with horses at Churchill in the summer, because the track gets so dry because of the weather.  He acknowledged the efforts that everyone’s making, but said that more needs to be done.

[Note:  I missed some of what Sheppard said because I couldn’t hear it.]

Jonathan Sheppard said that he has a farm of his own, so that he can rotate horses between the track and his farm.  He said that tracks need to be careful to keep their priorities in order.  “The single biggest investment a racetrack can make,” he said, “is to have a good surface.  I’m not sure that all track owners appreciate that.”  He also acknowledged that he didn’t want to put pressure on the smaller tracks for which finances are an issue.

Moderator Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director of the California Horse Racing Board, observed that horses seem to train harder and faster now than they did in the past. Workout times, he said, have gotten faster, and horses are worked more before their first start than they used to be.

Neil Howard said that trainers are “being pushed” to run more than they ever have.  “We’re forced to push at times,” he admitted.  “You don’t always want to answer the phone when the racing office calls.  If the track needs to fill a race, you’re pushed to enter.”

He added, “This safety thing takes precedence over everything else.”  He continued, “I hate to admit it, but we are sometimes pushed to run horses. Most people can’t afford the time to wait,” referring to owners.

McPeek questioned why there’s been no movement on uniform rules of medication and rules of racing.  “Why are there different rules in different states?” he asked, adding that racing “desperately” needs to look at universal rules for medication and racing.  He spoke at length, offering opinions on a variety of the issues affecting safety at the racetrack.  He observed that when Keeneland had a dirt track, “it was awful.”  He characterized Turfway as “brutal.”

He also said that he doesn’t believe that a Triple Crown will ever be won as long as Lasix is used in all three races.  “It will take an incredible horse to win those races in that time frame, when the horse is that dehydrated,” he opined, and then suggested that all medication be eliminated in all graded races.

Dr. Arthur questioned the panelists about the faster work times, to which Sheppard retorted, “You’re from California, and that’s where [Bob] Baffert trains,” eliciting a laugh from the audience.

Arthur persisted, noting that the increase in number of works and faster times also occurs in Kentucky.  Sheppard disagreed with this observation.

Arthur asked Dr. Larry Bramlage, of Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital, “With all the medical advances, why are there fewer starts per year per horse?”

Bramlage responded, “If we could move to the Japanese system, the number of starts would drop to three or four.”  He observed that Japanese horses race much less frequently than horses in the United States, which he characterized as a “huge luxury.”  Horses are, he said, a “perishable product.”

Bramlage went on to say that vets are now better at rehabilitation and detection, and admitted that they’re “probably not very much better at preventing.”  Vets have more tools for treating, he added, and said that sometimes, “treating and controlling” equine injury/illness get mixed up.

It’s not vet care that lowers starts, he said; lower starts are, in his opinion, the result of trying to push “three times as many horses through the same size pipe.”  Economic factors, he said, have way more impact on starts than anything else, more than vet care, soundness, or equine health.

We have to keep owners happy, he said; they fuel the game.  He observed that there has to be reward in racing, or people can’t afford to do it.

In a discussion of how the trainers use veterinarians, Dr. Arthur said, “Overmedication is a lack of confidence by a lot of trainers.”

Dr. Arthur asked Dr. Sue Holcombe, a veterinarian and member of the faculty at Michigan State University, about her work on equine respiratory issues.  She said that horses with clean airways have a two times better chance of competing well than horses with mucus.

She also noted that many horses that are not sick have mucus.  She has done research on the barn environment and causes of mucus; she observed that barns with lots of open windows had less dust.   Most dust, she said, happened in the morning, when stalls are cleaned and shedrows raked.  She also noted the seasonal factor:  barns are dry in the summer and have more particulate than when it’s cold or wet.  She acknowledged that there’s a “no brainerness” element to the results of her research.

She said that all barns had “hot stalls” or “hot spots,” stalls that had a lot more dust than others; that, she said, has yet to be explained.  Horses in those areas had more mucus in the morning than horses in other areas of the barn.

If you’ve got a horse with a lot of mucus, she suggested moving the horse to another stall, improving the ventilation, and opening the windows.

One of the recommendations from the previous summit, Arthur noted, was more education for trainers.  When asked what they thought about this recommendation, all the trainers on the panel (unsurprisingly) said that they were in favor of it.

Ken McPeek exhorted racing to change the rules about claiming races, citing a statistic that the highest number of breakdowns occur in the first quarter mile of a race.  This, McPeek said, is evidence that those horses are already hurt.  McPeek would like to see claims voided if a horse doesn’t finish a race.  If a claimed horse performs poorly, he said, then stewards or the state vet should make the call about whether the claim should be honored.

While all three trainers agreed that claiming is “really important” to the game, McPeek was adamant about the need to change the rule.  “It might help to save a horse,” he said.  He pointed out that the current system “financially rewards” trainers for starting unsound horses, and that it disadvantages the gambler who bets the horse on the dropdown.

Bramlage suggested that the claiming price should never be less than purse for the race.

We’re almost there, folks; just two more recaps to go, and then all of these reports will be archived on a separate page here.  Thanks to those who have left comments or e-mailed about the Summit.

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