07/09/2014 1:30PM

Contessa advocates for more transparency at safety summit

Barbara D. Livingston
Gary Contessa said that if there were more transparency among trainers, owners, and veterinarians there would be fewer breakdowns.

LEXINGTON, Ky., – Owners, trainers, and veterinarians should better work as a team when managing racehorses to assess risks the horse might face when racing and training, a panel of owners, trainers, and vets said Wednesday during the second and final day of the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit at the Keeneland sales pavilion.

The panelists, including trainer Gary Contessa, owner Bill Casner, Pin Oak farm manager Clifford Barry, and private racetrack veterinarian Foster Northrup, were guided during the presentation by Dr. Scott Palmer, the equine medical director of the New York State Gaming Commission. All appeared to agree that the relationship between the three principal caretakers of the horse could be improved through better communication, which would presumably improve the ability of the group to assess whether a horse was at risk of suffering an injury during racing.

Palmer, using past-performance information of unnamed horses who eventually broke down – including a 7-year-old who had won his last five races – asked the panelists, “Where do you draw that line?” when determining whether to continue to race a horse. The panelists said that answering that question is extremely difficult in many cases, but they agreed that there were tools that could help in the process, including more openness over the medications administered to horses and the diagnoses that would justify those treatments.

“If a horse is starting to show he’s not quite right, you need to stop and figure out what the problem is,” said Casner, who has become an outspoken advocate of re-evaluating many training and medication practices commonly used in the industry, such as the widespread use of the diuretic furosemide to mitigate bleeding in the lungs.

Contessa, who is based in New York, said increased communication between owners and trainers should extend to communication between competing owners and trainers, especially in the claiming game. Contessa said rules need to be put in place requiring the previous trainer and owner of a horse to transfer the claimed horse’s medical records to the new owner and trainer.

“I’m certainly not embarrassed to show my vet bills, but the training community ... likes to keep everything hidden,” Contessa said. “If we had more transparency [in vet bills for claimed horses], we’d have fewer breakdowns in this sport.”

Barry agreed that veterinary treatments need to be more broadly shared among the people who may care for or own the horse during its lifetime. He advocated creating a central database of the treatments administered to horses that could be accessed by the individuals who are caring for the horse, in the same manner as the consolidation taking place in human medicine to make a person’s lifetime health records available across a broad spectrum of caregivers.

Barry also said the constituencies involved in the management of a horse have often failed to keep up with research into medication and horse physiology that could lead to a re-examination of the industry’s current practices.

“We’re all guilty of getting into our own cocoon world every day,” Barry said.

Palmer said the “company” responsible for managing a horse could avail itself of four tools to better assess risk of injury: creation of a chart listing the known risk factors facing each horse in a stable, using information gleaned from the Equine Injury Database; the tracking of the number of “high-speed furlongs” a horse runs during racing and training; the incorporation of rest periods into regular training; and the sharing and discussion of each horse’s weekly vet treatments.

A later panel featured a series of three highly technical presentations regarding the use of corticosteroids, powerful anti-inflammatory drugs that are commonly used in racing but have been targeted for stricter regulation under new rules because of the ability of the drugs to weaken joint tissue when used chronically or in high doses. Some jurisdictions, including New York, have become supportive of new rules requiring owners and trainers to report corticosteroid administrations in horses so that any future owners and trainers are aware of the previous treatments the horse received.

The presentations on corticosteroids indicated that the medications remain very useful in treating osteoarthritis in horses. However, the latest studies also have confirmed that the drugs can have detrimental effects by creating irreversible damage to cartilage tissue in joints and by inhibiting the production of collagen, which strengthens joint fibers.

According to Dr. C. Wayne McIlwraith, a professor at Colorado State University who has long studied the effects of equine medications, new research has indicated that horses can benefit by just one dose of a corticosteroid. McIlwraith concluded his presentation by saying that corticosteroids remain the best class of drug to treat joint problems, and he said the “message” to use a lower dose, and to use that low dose infrequently, has recently begun taking hold in the veterinary community.