By T.D. Thornton
The first three dozen of about 50 Thoroughbreds in northern California were scheduled to have radio frequency identification (RFID) chips implanted on Tuesday at Golden Gate Fields as part of a California Horse Racing Board initiative to modernize pre-race identification, streamline the tracking of the backstretch population, and to assist the state in equine disease control.
“It’s a pilot project,” said CHRB track safety program director Jeff Salmon, who is overseeing the roll-out of the microchip study. “What we’re trying to do is understand what it will take to implement the chip approach statewide and work out the bugs in the operating procedure.”
Salmon said the Thoroughbred microchip program is the first of its kind in the United States to be implemented on this large a scale, although microchips have been used in other global racing jurisdictions for about 15 years. Apart from racing, the microchipping of livestock is common in the U.S. agri-business sector, and pet owners have been implanting chips to help identify lost dogs and cats for about 20 years.
The CHRB is teaming up with The Jockey Club, which will be integrating some of the information derived from the ID chips into its InCompass central database in an effort to study nationwide implementation; the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which is providing funding for the hardware, and the racing department at GGF, whose staff will receive instruction on both the hands-on scanning and in-office use of the data.
“We’re going to start with 50 or so horses, but as we progress and get more comfortable with our operating procedures, we’ll increase the number of horses so that we start to get a feeling for what it would entail to manage an entire backstretch population of horses,” Salmon said. “We’ve had no trouble recruiting trainers for the program, and we’re excited about it. The fact is, we’re providing protection for their horses, and the positives far outweigh the negatives. We really haven’t had objections.”
In addition to the 35 horses volunteered by GGF owners and trainers Tuesday, another 15 are scheduled for microchipping Wednesday at the Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton. Salmon estimated that three dozen horses could be implanted with chips in under four hours
“It’s amazingly quick,” Salmon said of the implantation. “The supplier sells an individualized sterilized kit for each horse. The chip is about the size of a grain of rice. It sits on the end of a needle. The needle has a little trigger, almost like a pair of scissors built into the handle. The veterinarian or the vet tech inserts the chip in probably ten seconds. You put a swab of disinfectant on the site before and after you finish. There’s really no impact to the horse and you can do it fairly quickly.”
The chips get implanted into the nuchal ligament that runs the length of a horse’s neck.
“The reason that it’s implanted in the ligament is that it prevents movement or drifting of the chip,” Salmon said. He explained this was a lesson learned from early attempts at microchipping in pet cats and dogs, when the chips would float away from their implantation area and become unreadable.
Salmon said that this summer, identifiers in the paddocks of northern California tracks will begin learning how to scan the chips with a reading wand, although he doesn’t expect the lip tattoo-reading aspect of that job to go away anytime soon.
“You just pass the wand over the area of the neck where the chip’s implanted and the reading is almost instantaneous,” Salmon said.
The wand then transmits the data via a wireless Bluetooth tablet computer that the identifier will carry. The tablet can be programmed to share the ID data locally with racing office software and The Jockey Club’s nationwide network.
“So instead of paperwork, what we ultimately want to get to is an automated process,” Salmon said.
A potential long-term goal for the industry is to “have a national database that includes every horse,” Salmon said.
“Ultimately, we would expect that foals could be chipped as part of the registration process,” Salmon said. “But we’re not there yet. Over the next 18 months, our goals are to prove that there aren’t major problems associated with such a change. We need to get that proof that costs are reasonable, the health risks to the horse are low, and that ultimately this will save a lot of time and money for the associations that are running the races.”
Salmon said the RFID scanners cost on the order of $1,000 and the tablet computers are $300 to $500. The chips themselves cost around $10.
“You can scan a lot of horses and record a lot of data and upload a lot of data into the InCompass system for an invested price of less than $5,000,” Salmon said. “Relatively, it’s a low-cost technology. We expect to work out a deal with our associations and the owners and trainers as to how those costs are split, but they’re not prohibitive by any means.”
In 2005, the CHRB embarked upon a similar microchipping program. At that time, the cost of the chips was four or five times greater than what it is today. Salmon said the program never got off the ground because of logistical difficulties.
“The criticism was that they tried to take on a lot, more than a single racetrack; a large number of horses immediately,” Salmon explained. “So they ended up with errors in the data and too many inaccuracies in terms of counting the horses and locating them. Our emphasis will be developing and understanding a process that we can depend on. It’s going to be very systematic, very controlled. We’re not running into this and trying to shove this down anyone’s throat. We’re quite interested in doing this right. We’re putting the onus on ourselves to make it work.”
One component of equine microchipping that is gaining favor in other parts of the world is the ability to track a horse’s movements via global positioning, so that a racehorse can be accessed at any time by authorities for out-of-competition drug testing. But Salmon said the chips that will be used in the CHRB pilot program are not equipped with GPS capabilities.
“But that will happen,” Salmon said. “There will come a day when we will be able to pinpoint the location of every horse. Certainly you can see where this technology will lead in terms of being absolutely positive of where a horse was at what point in time. You can see the advantages on the security side and on the investigative side.”