Russian Roulette & Thoroughbred Horse Sales


The Saturday, Feb. 9, Lexington Herald-Leader featured a front page story on “False X-rays Made Horse Sales a Gamble, Suit Says”. In a lawsuit filed by Lexington attorney, Mason Miller on behalf of Illinois trainer Tom Swearingen, Mr. Miller alleges that actions of certain veterinarians at Hagyard-Davidson-McGee Associates by backdating a small number, maybe 10%, of radiographic images of yearlings offered for public auction at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale over the past several years was “the functional equivalent of playing Russian roulette” for buyers purchasing such misrepresented yearlings. Out of 4,538 yearlings offered for sale 2,916 were sold in the 2018 sale. Some of those horses not sold were the result of repository X-rays and reports indicating the likelihood that certain horses had defects which would greatly decrease the likelihood of attracting buyer interest. Others were either withdrawn from the sale close to their sales dates because of a lack of interest that buyers were perceived to have in these horses or RNA'd.

For the horses that did sell, the majority, if not all, had most likely been radiographed and had their throats endoscoped by veterinarians for the repository at Keeneland and had Repository Reports issued to the owner/breeder/consignor stating what defects, if any, that the examining veterinary surgeon felt needed to be disclosed because of the type of abnormality observed. Every consignor likes to get a report back that is “clean,” meaning “no significant abnormalities” for each joint radiographed. The window of timing for these September Sale yearling X-rays is 21 days prior to the date of sale for each horse (and 15 days for weanlings and “short yearlings” in Keeneland's November and January sales).

However, Keeneland requires that all repository X-rays and corresponding reports be placed in the repository four days prior to each catalogued horse's sale date. That gives veterinarians a 17-day period to get X-rays done for these 4,538 September yearlings with 32 X-rays required for each individual horse. This means that the X-rays must be taken, then reviewed by one of Hagyard's surgeons with a report written on these X-rays for the consignor, a copy of which is submitted to Keeneland's repository and stamped for verification for the consignor.

This is a very daunting task for Hagyard-Davidson-McGee to X-ray these yearlings for the sale. I feel sure there is pressure on other veterinary firms as well that perform this work. It is also a big logistical problem for owners and consignors to the September Sale because of the many days a consignor's horses may be catalogued over a 14-15 day sale and the time that goes into preparing to take these horses to the sale.

As both a consignor and a buyer at the sale, I appreciate what these veterinarians do. However, the 21-day limit is not that significant to me as a buyer so long as the X-rays are accurate and current within a 30-45 day period prior to purchasing a yearling. What I worry about are conditions that are not going to change if the X-rays are taken a week earlier than required. These conditions are abnormalities such as “luciencies” or “OCDs” which involve cartilage and joint articular surfaces or old apical fractures that may involve suspensory ligaments or old chips that may involve a joint and an articular surface. These problems are not going to be different depending on a one-week difference in the X-rays. These problems take months to develop and months to resolve. Therefore, I have a hard time seeing this charge by the plaintiff and his attorney being a material issue.

The X-rays, if done properly, are going to give any reviewing veterinarian acting for a buyer all the information he needs to make an informed decision. All of this is very subjective to begin with and each veterinarian reviewing the digital X-rays may come up with a different opinion.

A lot of buyers of the later catalogued horses that do not bring the big prices simply ask for the consignor to allow him/her to review the repository report that the consignor/owner is given by the veterinarian reviewing the X-rays for his/her use and is that veterinarian's opinion on what he/she believes may or may not be a problem for the consignor/owner. These are not opinions for the general buying public even though they are used as such.

Prospective buyers are deemed to have knowledge of all information placed in the repository for each sale horse submitted whether the buyer has it reviewed or not. Prospective buyers or their agents, for the most part, examine the yearlings at their sales barn and watch them walk while looking for physical signs of problems. They may also request additional throat endoscopic exams as well as doing heart scans, DNA checks of tail hair, biomechanical evaluations, etc. There is no shortage of means to evaluate these yearlings. There are also transparency requirements for owners and consignors. Even though it is still “caveat emptor” for the buyer, there are so many options currently available that a one to two week difference in when sales X-rays are taken appears to me to be very immaterial and insignificant as long as the X-rays are accurate when taken.

As I previously stated, almost all problems are going to be chronic, not acute. Things happen to horses after arriving at the sales grounds due to the stress and change of environment that are not going to show up in the X-rays and reports. Horses at the sales ground can die before, during or after their sales. I have personally seen this occur.

If the plaintiff and his attorney are worried about “Russian roulette” in the Thoroughbred horse industry, maybe they should try what breeders do: plan a mating three years in advance of selling the product of that mating; foal that mating 11 months after the conception takes place without losing the mare, foal or both; raise the resulting foal for over a year without the resulting foal dying, injuring itself or having some type of deformity. This is what breeders do every year. In my opinion this is real “Russian roulette”. The prospective buyer has had all of the hard work done for him/her when this yearling steps into the Keeneland sales ring. The timing of the X-rays is a sales company issue which, along with the use of repository reports, needs to be addressed by them in conjunction with consignors and veterinarians. In my opinion, a week difference in X-rays is not going to affect my judgment of an individual horse.

–Alfred H. Nuckols, Jr. of Hurstland Farm in Midway, KY


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