By T. D. Thornton
As the globalization of the sport opens new avenues of knowledge sharing, the world’s largest Thoroughbred breeding nation might be wise to take a page or two from the playbook of the second-largest breeding country to glean pearls about how Racing Australia, within just the past three years, has implemented a comprehensive traceability program to track racehorses from foaling through retirement.
“Going back six or seven years, it was always in the mind of the Racing Australia board that this was an area that needed some focus,” said Dr. Eliot Forbes, who serves as chairman of Racing Australia’s national Retirement of Racehorses Committee.
In May, when Forbes detailed Australia’s approach at the International Forum for the Aftercare of Racehorses in Washington, D.C., his 20-minute talk (video here) generated considerable buzz and numerous questions from Americans curious about how to implement some of Racing Australia’s protocols in the States.
“I think a lot of people were surprised at what we were able to achieve in such a relatively short amount of time,” Forbes recounted last week via phone from his home country, where he also serves as chief executive of the state authority Racing Queensland.
Forbes’s diverse background in both horse care and racing industry administration also includes prior work as the long-running chief veterinary officer for the G1 Dubai World Cup, an honors degree in Veterinary Science from the University of Queensland, and a Masters of Business Administration from La Trobe University.
But beyond his professional and scholarly qualifications, it is the can-do effusiveness that Forbes brings to the aftercare discussion that imparts a sheen to Racing Australia’s well-thought-out retirement initiatives.
“We’re driving a culture change here,” Forbes said. “The best change management programs are those where you bring people along on the journey. You get them to understand why people need to make a change, and demonstrate how that’s going to be a benefit to them in the long run. Education and culture change are the key planks to our strategy. So is being encouraging and making it easy—the carrot and not the stick.”
In Australia, seven states that conduct racing come together under the industry-funded federation Racing Australia, which maintains the national rulebook and racehorse database. There are roles and responsibilities at both the state and federal levels, and Forbes is quick to preface his comments by noting this is quite different from how U.S. racing is regulated at the state level by 38 separate racing commissions.
“As we’ve gone along this journey, all Australian states have gotten some sort of program in place,” Forbes said. “And if we fast-forward then and think about the U.S., understandably you’ve got a big country with a lot of racing states. The degree of centralization will be different than what we do in Australia. However, local racetrack-based retirement initiatives are fully within the realm of what most tracks and states could be empowered to do in the States.
“So the Australian approach may not necessarily be the right approach in the U.S.,” Forbes continued. “It might be that you’ve got to play to your strengths [of existing aftercare programs] and then move towards the right regulatory mechanisms when you’re able to.”
With that caveat in mind, here are five key takeaways from a conversation with Forbes about how some aspects of the Racing Australia retirement initiatives could be applied to the U.S. aftercare efforts.
1) Full traceability is a cornerstone of integrity
Rules phased in over the past three years require that all foalings be reported to Racing Australia within 30 days of birth (failure to do so means the horse isn’t accepted into the Australian Stud Book). The horse’s owner and where the horse is housed must be declared, and the horse’s caretakers agree to be bound by the Rules of Racing which relate to welfare, traceability, and the banning of steroids and prohibited substances in racehorses. If the young horse leaves its home for more than 90 days, its whereabouts must be reported.
A separate Racing Australia database tracks horses once they enter training and begin to race. Upon a horse’s retirement (or other first exit from racing), owners and trainers must inform Racing Australia, and the reporting requirements include the date of the retirement, the reason for retirement, the declaration of any injury or illness, the retirement destination, and the likely second career or aftercare plan for the retiree.
“So we’ve now got insight and visibility as to where the horses are, right through their entire lives until they exit the racing industry,” Forbes said. “The cornerstone of integrity really comes down to knowing the identity of the horse and knowing where the horse is. The concept of traceability is born out of those pillars.”
Forbes stressed that those foaling/racing/retirement pillars act like a three-legged stool, and that all legs must equally bear the weight for the traceability program to function properly.
2) Collect the right data— then utilize it properly
Forbes said that the scientist part of him would like to ask for as many data points as possible on the racehorse retirement forms. But in order for the program to work, he knows that his thirst for data must be balanced against practicality.
“When it comes to the retirement side, it’s a self-directed system whereby it’s up to the owners to complete the form when the horse retires,” Forbes said. “We’re recognizing that asking for the amount of information that we are puts an obligation upon the industry’s participants.”
Between July 2014, when the retirement reporting first began, and June 2016, Racing Australia collected retirement data on 15,000 racehorses.
The reasons for retirement were: Injury (45%), owner’s request (34%), proactive decision to breed (9%), blank/other/illness (12%).
The expected second careers were: Equestrian/pleasure (68%), breeding (20%), reported deceased (9%), livestock sale/official retirement program/other (3%).
Forbes said the takeaway here is that nine out of 10 retirees either entered second career or breeding endeavors. He admitted that after the first year, he did have concerns about whether or not the data might be skewed, because it’s presumable that only the most responsible owners took the time to fill out the forms.
“But what was pleasantly surprising was that the second year of data was actually very broadly consistent,” Forbes explained. “So we were pleased that the data was positive, and pleased that it was consistent.”
3) Encourage compliance; don’t focus on punishment
Beyond racing, this point seems to encompass cultural differences between the less socially tense Australia and the more politically correct and rule-driven U.S.
“There of course will be a degree of non-compliance. However, we haven’t moved aggressively into punitive mechanisms to deal with compliance, quite simply because we haven’t needed to so far,” Forbes said.
One component of the retirement program involves “nudging” the owners of horses whose careers seem to have lapsed. Every month staffers go through the Racing Australia database looking for horses that haven’t started in two years. They then contact the owners asking if the horse is still in training. If it is, fine. If not? Then please complete the proper form.
“I think that there’s always pushback from anybody when they’re subjected to higher degrees of regulation. It’s just a natural tendency to push back against the extra administrative burden, so that was certainly one of the challenges we had in the early days,” Forbes said.
Asked if Racing Australia makes any attempt to trace horses beyond their first exit from racing, Forbes said the organization is constrained by law from doing so. “The provisions over where we have authority extend only so far as licensed participants in the race industry,” he explained.
That’s a contrast to the private-property rights some U.S. tracks exercise when they institute “zero tolerance” policies that bar individuals if horses they once owned or trained end up at slaughter auctions or are otherwise found to be neglected by subsequent owners—even years after the horse’s first exit from racing.
“That sort of approach we’d find very challenging to contemplate,” Forbes said when asked his opinion on the zero tolerance approach. “We can only reasonably expect our licensed participants to take responsibility for the first exit out of the industry. Horses can go on to have very long [second] careers and multiple owners. It may be that there will be owners at some stage that choose to neglect a horse. I can certainly sympathize that people might be frustrated if they were being held accountable for something that’s outside their control.”
4) Get real about community expectations
“Community expectations” is a phrase that doesn’t often come to the forefront of the aftercare discussion in the U.S. Over the course of a 45-minute phone conversation, Forbes used the phrase multiple times.
Several years ago Australia was blitzed by anti-racing attacks from animal rights activists whose aggressive tactics aimed at greyhound and Thoroughbred interests attempted to tilt the beliefs of the mainstream public toward the extreme outer edge. Forbes said it’s important for the industry to align with mainstream community expectations before such challenges come to the front.
“In the horse race industry, we’ve got to constantly ensure that we’re in touch with society’s expectations,” Forbes said. “The community expectation is that the racing industry, in its totality, includes the supply chain. And that supply chain extends from birth until exit from the racing industry.”
Forbes explained that if a society collectively says, “We do expect you to have oversight over that supply chain. We do expect you to collect and analyze retirement data to make the process better,” then the racing industry would be wise to align with those beliefs.
“It’s the right thing to do. When we work with animals, we’re charged with an overarching responsibility to their care and their welfare, and the regulatory framework that we’ve put in place is the right thing to do,” Forbes said.
“If you had asked people 10 years ago [about racehorse retirement], they probably wouldn’t have been in that frame of mind,” Forbes said. “That’s where expectations have changed, and that’s why you have to keep your finger on the pulse.
5) Focus on the “demand side”
Forbes called the issue of proper aftercare “a racing problem with an equestrian solution.”
How an industry arrives at that solution though, can involve multiple paths.
An example of the supply side approach to retirement is when an entity subsidizes the care of Thoroughbreds that are awaiting new homes or careers. The costs involved primarily pertain to the housing, feeding, veterinary care, and retraining of the horses before they can be sold or donated to new off-track owners (or, alternately, the horses are kept by third parties to be part of therapeutic or prison programs that benefit both equines and humans).
In contrast, the demand side involves incentivizing the equestrian community to choose Thoroughbreds over other breeds when it comes to acquiring horses for either competition or pleasure. This could take the form of racing industry entities sponsoring divisions of events at equestrian shows to reward riders who compete on ex-racehorses.
“I’m a big fan of the demand model,” Forbes said. “It stimulates the demand for Thoroughbreds in the equestrian market. It supports the existing business model of the retraining community. And it really raises the awareness of the athleticism of Thoroughbreds, and helps to bring the equestrian communities and the racing communities closer together.”
Forbes continued: “So these sponsorships could be in eventing, show jumping, or showing in hand. As long as it’s a class that’s restricted to Thoroughbreds–and you can even go one step further and say ‘off-the-track’ Thoroughbreds. The neat sort of thing about those programs in terms of sponsorship dollars for equestrian events is that they’re scalable. You do what you can afford, and the money that goes into the equestrian world usually goes a long way. A couple of great horse rugs and some merchandise and some bags of feed can really help a lot of equestrian people, whereas [to the racing industry sponsors] those are really very low-cost items.”
Forbes also underscored the educational value of money that is spent to stimulate demand.
“A lot of this is really about tapping into and working with the communities that are already there,” Forbes said. “There will be groups of people who will advance the athleticism of Thoroughbreds within the equestrian community, and it’s really just a matter of linking up with them and tapping into their enthusiasm and passion straight on.”
Forbes noted that this strategy could be particularly effective in the U.S., where the ranks of Thoroughbreds that compete in equestrian events have been thinned by the decades-long influx of European Warmbloods and other breeds of horses that have come into vogue for sporting use.
“We’re fortunate in Australia. We really haven’t had such a strong swing in that direction and the numbers of Thoroughbreds in the equestrian world are still very, very high,” Forbes said. “But we can’t take that for granted, and that’s why the programs that we’ve got in place are important.”