10/31/2005 12:00AM

Chief vet says heavy workload invites errors

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The error made by a state veterinarian at Churchill Downs on Sunday that led to an incorrect scratch is a reflection of underlying problems of short staffing and low pay, said Dr. Gary Wilson, chief veterinarian for the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority.

Wilson said Monday that because state veterinarians in Kentucky are hired on an interim basis and on a pay scale that is among the lowest in the country, new hires by the state are generally inexperienced, he said.

Traveling to racetracks across Kentucky, state veterinarians can work up to 12 hours per day, Wilson said, attending to bicarbonate testing, prerace examinations, paddock and gate inspections of horses, and postrace testing. The heavy workload creates an environment that invites errors, he said.

"I've talked to the [authority's] administration, and they've asked me, 'How can we improve the program?' " he said. "I've told them, 'Increase the manpower.' "

Jim Gallagher, executive director of the authority, said state veterinarians "do the job as it needs to be done." He said staffing issues would be discussed and addressed by the authority's personnel representatives.

Wilson, who took over as chief veterinarian this summer after being hired a little more than a year ago by the authority, said state veterinarians are most busy when multiple tracks in the state are running, Thoroughbred or Standardbred.

He pointed to an incident from the fall meet at Turfway Park as an example of the problem. A filly named Oui Marie experienced heat stroke after a race, he said, and no state veterinarian was able to attend to her on the backstretch, where she had been pulled up when galloping out. Her trainer, Bob Holthus, said she was brought to the paddock by an outrider and was treated there.

Because of the delay in Oui Marie's veterinary care, Wilson said, the heat stroke became more of a threatening condition than it would have otherwise. She recovered.

"I do think they are very short-handed," Holthus said.

Gallagher said that hiring on an interim basis, rather than full time, is "standard operating procedure for state government." The pay scale for state veterinarians "requires interaction" with the Kentucky state government's Environmental and Public Protection Cabinet, he said.