03/10/2011 3:22PM

Prerace inspections protecting horses as well as bettors

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Not long after dawn at Fair Grounds Race Course and Slots in New Orleans, Dr. Nancy Bonhoff pulled up to the Gentilly Avenue stable gate in her truck. She parked, offered a friendly greeting to a security guard, met with a racing reporter, and began her rounds. Bonhoff is a state-employed equine veterinarian. Her task each morning races are scheduled is to perform examinations of horses entered to race that day. And that means she is not the most popular person in the stables.

Bonhoff’s first stop was Barn 2, the shed row of trainer Frank Leggio. Two of Leggio’s owners, Earl and Keith Hernandez, visited that morning. They greeted Bonhoff politely but warily and stared coldly at her companion. “Who are you?” Leggio wondered. The explanation – tagging along, reporting for a story – hardly seemed satisfactory. A few minutes later, the owners tried to make a little nicer. “You can’t have just anyone going around looking at your horses,” one explained.

But that’s precisely the job of Bonhoff and every other state-employed regulatory veterinarian conducting prerace exams around North America – to look at other people’s horses. To lay an unbiased set of eyes and hands on an entered horse to maximize the chance that horse can compete without suffering one of the myriad problems that can occur during the stress of a race, problems that kill horses, hurt riders – and fail to give gamblers a fair shake. Both safety and integrity have come under increased scrutiny in recent years. The highly visible breakdowns of Barbaro in the Preakness and Eight Belles in the Kentucky Derby triggered a series of equine-safety related protocols just now starting to take full effect. And in November, Life At Ten’s essentially non-participatory performance as the 7-2 second choice in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic made many wonder who was looking out for bettors’ interests.

And the realms of safety and integrity are closely linked.

“This is something I learned a long time ago,” said Dr. Joe Lokanc, a state-employed veterinarian in Chicago. “If it’s right by the horse, everything else falls in place. If that horse isn’t right going into the gate, it’s not fair to the horse, the riders, the owner, and, most of all, the betting public.”

Prerace exams have been ongoing for decades in places like New York and California. Some places, like Louisiana, have only recently adopted them. Other states, such as Arkansas and Pennsylvania, don’t mandate the practice at all. Some tracks, such as those in Florida, supply their own vets for prerace exams, but many venues have just one veterinarian responsible for an entire population, making it impossible to give even a cursory morning look at all horses entered to race. For example, in New Mexico, Sunland Park is the state’s only track capable of inspecting all horses.

Prerace exams and other safety-focused mechanisms in the sport feel like the wave of the future. The exams are required of tracks that want to be certified members of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s Safety and Integrity Alliance. Many vets doing prerace inspections now enter their findings directly into a portable computer provided by InCompass Solutions, a for-profit arm of the Jockey Club. Their daily findings go into InCompass’s national database and may eventually be linked up with the Equine Injury Database, a 3-year-old Jockey Club initiative that has provided the racing industry with its first national injury database.

It’s a technocrat’s dream, this all-encompassing system that would offer a god’s-eye view of Thoroughbred health. And it may well remain only a dream. The same resistance veterinarians starting up prerace exam programs periodically encounter on a micro-level is writ large into the sport.

“There is an attitude in horse racing that everything’s secret,” said Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board and a frequent consultant on national veterinary policy. “It’s a hard attitude to break.”

Back in the Leggio shed row, Bonhoff calls out the names of the horses she needs to see. Hopefully, their grooms have removed bandages and clay poultice from legs that Bonhoff has to feel, or palpate, to try and detect soreness. That’s usually the case. The local set of trainers has been trained in the way of the prerace exam. Often, neither the trainer nor assistant trainer bothers to oversee the examining vet’s activities. In this case, though, Leggio himself jogs a horse named Killing Me 20 or 30 feet down the barn’s dirt path after Bonhoff has run her hands over the horse’s legs. The veterinarian’s first item of business is to check a horse’s lip tattoo and make sure she is looking at the right animal. Then comes the leg exam, perhaps with some flexing of ankle and knee joints, and finally the all-important jog.

“If they palpate sore but jog sound we don’t scratch,” Bonhoff said of prerace exam policy at Fair Grounds, which began doing comprehensive exams in 2009. “It’s only if they’re sore in a jog.”
If an examining vet finds a problem, the information is passed along to the racetrack’s stewards, who are responsible for scratching a horse. Bonhoff estimated this happens about once per day at Fair Grounds.

“I think it’s helping,” Bonhoff said. “I think there’s been a decrease in what people are willing to present because they know we’re watching.”

At Evangeline Downs, where Bonhoff works summers, the breakdown rate dropped from eight per 1,000 starters to just two per 1,000 starters after prerace exams began in 2008. And, theoretically, a prerace exam could weed out a horse, such as Life At Ten, who should have been scratched for reasons having nothing to do with soreness.

“Any issues in the morning that would show any health problems, nasal discharges or anything, are noted,” said Dr. Tom David, who helped institute Louisiana’s prerace exam program.

The art of the prerace exam involves distinguishing between a hot-button issue and something less urgent. A lot of old-hand racers have chronically bulbous ankle joints and knotty knees.

“Particularly these claimers and cheaper horses, all you’re trying to do is determine the difference between a chronic and an acute situation,” Dr. Steven Seabaugh, a prerace examiner in Chicago, said on a cold, rainy morning this past winter at Hawthorne. “Like that gray horse over there. He’s an old warhorse with some ankles that actually are better than when I last saw him. If he’d been worse today, you’d take him out and look at him go.”

Seabaugh said that on a busy day he might request the stewards scratch two or three horses: One or none is more common. If a problem not serious enough to warrant a scratch is noted, the horse’s condition is passed along to two other Chicago vets, who give the animal extra scrutiny later in the day. One watches the horse come into the paddock to be saddled, the other during prerace warm-ups. It’s not just particular horses that get closer attention, but the horses from certain trainers on which vets will focus.

“Most trainers will not willingly run an obviously sore horse, but some of them got so many, they might not know,” Seabaugh said. “So you’ve got them, and then there are some people who will try to get away with something.”

The thing is, a significant part of American racing relates closely to “getting away with something.” That’s the claiming game, which can turn into a game of musical chairs: You don’t want to be the one trainer left standing with a horse who has gone bad. A good claiming trainer, in fact, must regularly practice sleight of hand. He doesn’t want the competition to know when a horse is doing especially well, and he certainly isn’t going to advertise the fact that an animal valued at $20,000 two weeks ago might not be able to beat $10,000 claimers today.

“I think people claiming horses feel a little more comfortable now than they used to,” trainer Merrill Scherer said at Fair Grounds late last year, and as far as Scherer is concerned, that’s not a good thing. Scherer speaks for far more horsepeople than himself when he calls the prerace exams “a waste of time.”

“If you squeeze my horse hard enough, sure, you can make him jump,” he said.

Dr. David in Louisiana said he believes that to honestly give precedence to the health of the horse, the entire claiming-race system should be reexamined. He said that at one point, the American Association of Equine Practitioners tried to address such concerns with the national wing of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association but made little headway. (The AAEP did not respond to a request for comment.)

“We’ve got some real issues with the way the claiming game is played,” David said. “It’s money to a lot of [trainers], and it’s a horse to us. There are too many instances where it’s not in the best interest of the horse, and this claiming game has gotten really skewed when there’s so much money at the bottom of the game. Those are the horses that are most at risk for abusive behaviors.”

The regulatory establishment and horsemen also are at odds over the allowable amount of phenylbutazone, or bute, a commonly used pain reliever, that can be present in a horse’s system on race day. The Racetrack Medication and Testing Consortium has recommended lowering the amount of bute permitted on race day from a concentration of five micrograms per milliliter of a horse’s plasma or serum to two micrograms per milliliter. Regulators argue the higher concentration can mask soreness during prerace exams, diminishing their effectiveness.

There is no hard evidence showing prerace exams reduce the incidence of racing injury over the long term, because racing has never been able to take a full accounting of the injuries and fatalities suffered by its equine athletes.

“I think any regulatory veterinarian you talk to in the country will tell you the process does reduce the risk of injury and has contributed to increased safety,” said Dr. Mary Scollay, the equine medical director of the Kentucky Horseracing Commission, who consulted on the InCompass prerace module now in use at some racing jurisdictions. “But up until recently, we didn’t really have an occurrence database, and if you don’t know how many horses are getting hurt, how do you know if something is helping?”

This is what the Equine Injury Database (EID) is meant to address. Administered by the Jockey Club, the EID, which Scollay helped create, was put into place in 2008 after a 2007 trial and is now beginning to produce useful data. Any injury incident that occurs on a participating racetrack and involves a regulatory veterinarian is supposed to be entered into the InCompass program. For the first time, a picture of Thoroughbred racing injuries is emerging on a national level, rather than piecemeal, track by track. Still, the EID, like prerace exams, runs into racing’s private realm. Private-practice vets don’t contribute to the EID, and what work they do on a client’s horse falls into an area like the doctor-patient relationship in humans. About the only injuries that make it into the EID are the really serious ones that occur during races.

In other words, it’s going to be a long time before these national safety initiatives – transparent tracking of the health of every racehorse – might come into being. At least one model is out there. Hong Kong, under the auspices of the powerful Hong Kong Jockey Club, conducts prerace exams with access to a horse’s entire medical history, required to be provided.

“Their goal is no gate scratches,” said Arthur, the California racing board vet.

The sport of kings has always dragged along a shadowy side, too. It’s not like this is pure evil. The big score on a hidden first-time starter, the crafty claiming barns working mysterious wizardry – this side of the game has roped in fans with a hard-boiled romantic appeal. But the culture outside racing has changed enough since racing’s heyday that there might no longer be space for that wing of the museum.

“What a lot of trainers don’t get is how vulnerable we are to incidents like Barbaro and Eight Belles,” Arthur said. “Particularly when you look at data we have in our necropsy program that shows 90 percent of fatalities are in horses with pre-existing conditions at the site of the injury. I was raised on a farm. I still look at horses as livestock. But the public doesn’t look at it that way. It’s not our own standards we have to satisfy. It’s the people who are paying to put on the sport.”