By Steve Asmussen
With heightened accountability for the health and welfare of horses, trainers today are being held to the highest of standards–as we should. However, we can see every day that race tracks and track ownership groups are not held to that same standard.
A prime example is the unfortunate trend of closing a racetrack one day a week for training. This short-sighted cost-cutting move is not in racehorses' best interest.
I feel that I've exhausted the proper channels to discuss this with people in charge of safety. We need all concerned horsemen and horsemen's associations to explain to track management and regulators why being closed a day a week for training is not a simple scheduling hurdle for trainers but absolutely is not doing right by the horse.
Tracks have added multiple maintenance breaks during training hours in order to maintain the best track surface possible. But the practice of closing a racetrack one day a week funnels an unnecessary volume of horses to work over the same racetrack, which defeats the purpose of having a renovation break or multiple breaks.
At a time when horsemanship and reacting to the individual needs of a horse should be encouraged, a mandated training “dark day” does not allow taking into account variables such as weather, track condition on a given day, timing of races or just how the horse is doing–and how the horse performed in training one morning might necessitate an adjustment for the next day.
If there's so much more accountability for the health of a horse, then let us do everything possible to get them over there in the best shape achievable.
Soundness keeps horses training and racing, and without sound horses there are no races. Denying an opportunity to train on a schedule tailored to the individual horse, rather than for someone sitting in an office, hurts the health of our racehorses.
From my Churchill Downs and Oaklawn Park veterinarian, Dr. William C. Hawk:
“It's not a herd mentality, where we're trying to milk a certain group of cows at a certain time every day. Mandated days off increase the incidence of the syndrome known as 'tying-up,' which can lead to muscle damage, with fillies particularly susceptible. Often those horses will have to be tranquilized as prevention the day after they don't train. If they tie-up, we have to scratch them in order to treat them, and we can't treat them to prevent it.
“Most horses can benefit from a day off. It just needs to be by the trainers' discretion based on what they see with each individual horse, and we want these horses training up to the day they race. We don't want the day before for sure, and usually a couple of days before that, off before exerting at full speed.
“There are metabolic issues. Proper movement affects hooves and legs, as well as the gastrointestinal, cardiovascular and respiratory systems. Proper exercise improves their circulation, digestion, flexibility, muscle and bone development, which in turn impacts their overall health and happiness.
“No athlete is scheduled to take a set day off every week because schedules change, weather changes and games are played on different days of the week. We find the same in horse racing.
“On top of this, the track cannot be at its optimum condition for morning training after a day with no maintenance. Putting sufficient amounts of water on the track is one of the most critical components to track safety. After missing a day, it can take another day or more–depending on weather–to gain back what was lost.”
It's amazing the resistance you meet from people in position to make decisions for the safety of the horses. It's not OK to do nothing. It's 100 percent not what's best for a horse.
I continue to see the layers of safety measures being put in place, the motivation of some edicts having more to do with the hope of changing perceived public perception rather than actually benefitting the horse. What I don't see is horsemen being part of determining thoughtful measures that effect positive transformation. That must change, and the ill-advised practice of mandatory non-training days should stop now.
Steve Asmussen is a Hall of Fame trainer who has won more than 9,000 races. William C. Hawk DVM has practiced equine medicine at the racetrack for more than 40 years.