By Dan Ross
If reception is any guide, the main takeaway by far from Tuesday's California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) Medication, Safety, and Welfare Committee meeting was the suggestion of an accident prevention taskforce to systematically study the myriad factors behind fatal equine injury.
The primary discussion on the meeting agenda was a highly anticipated one, concerning the possibility of penalizing trainers for injuries and fatalities for horses in their care.
During the meeting introduction, CHRB executive director, Scott Chaney, and CHRB chairman, Gregory Ferraro, explained that while California has witnessed a sharp decline in equine fatalities over the last two years, the discussion was to stimulate suggestions on maintaining that trend going forward.
Both made pointed reference to trainers with multiple fatalities in their care each year.
“If you look at the numbers over the last few years, by far the vast majority of trainers have no more than one breakdown in any given year,” Ferraro said.
“But there's a handful, just a handful of trainers who have multiple violations, multiple breakdowns, year after year after year. And those individuals are endangering the welfare and health of the industry,” said Ferraro.
There were 72 equine fatalities at CHRB-regulated facilities during the past fiscal year. “Of the 72 fatalities during the past fiscal years, all but 14 were one-off events for trainers. Of those 14 trainers, 12 had two [fatalities], one had three, and one had four,” Chaney explained.
“To be put in context, a musculoskeletal death is exceedingly rare at a CHRB regulated facility,” Chaney said, citing the following statistics: During the last fiscal year, there were 30 racing-related deaths from nearly 31,000 starts, and 22 training-related deaths from over 73,000 workouts.
“To be clear, writing a regulation that penalizes trainers for preventable or predictable catastrophic injuries has due process, logistical and fairness challenges, all of which may be difficult to overcome,” said Chaney.
After a preamble detailing the complex set of variables factoring into equine injury, California Thoroughbred Trainers (CTT) executive director, Alan Balch, outlined the organization's thinking behind a possible accident prevention taskforce comprising industry stakeholders and academics.
The taskforce, Balch explained, would systemize the extensive information already collected within the sport, as well as canvas professional input into some of the more subtle and intractable problems underpinning equine injury, like horses coming back from a lay-off.
“Some body could be formed that would look specifically at all of the data involved in repeated accidents,” said Balch.
“When accidents do occur, the basics pieces are already in place for a more formal fact-finding mechanism, since our tracks and regulator conduct reviews of the most serious accidents with those professionals and connections involved,” he said.
“What may be missing is a way to systemize these findings to evaluate them all together, and take definitive action where indicated, including not only the possibility of referrals or penalties for any licensees who might be found responsible, but more important, recommendations for improved conditions, safety, or regulation that may arise,” said Balch.
Balch then outlined a set of other related issues that the taskforce could formally address, including:
– Improving the “scope, accuracy and detail” of the national Equine Injury Database.
– Determining the true statistical safety of synthetic surfaces, versus dirt and turf, “and reconsidering whether to once again mandate synthetic surfaces for either training or racing.”
– Developing an “agreement on best practices” when it comes to horses returning to racing following a lay-off.
– Further investment into, and enhancement of, all continuing education programs, “for any professional, including management, trainer, official or veterinarian or jockey, who might demonstrate the need from the formal accident review process.”
– New rule making processes for weeding out potential or perceived conflicts of interest in the sport.
– Consideration that official regulatory veterinarians be only state veterinarians, “answerable only to the regulator, and properly compensated by a CHRB assessment.”
– A modernization process to streamline existing CHRB statutes and regulations.
– Establishing consistent and uniform “oversight and surveillance practices” at all regulated training and racing facilities.
– And consideration that all contemporary diagnostic and rehabilitative practices and equipment are made uniformly available across the state.
“Obviously I could go on and on, and the taskforce could develop a great many more of these ideas,” said Balch.
“Mobilizing all of California's constituent groups to assess these and other ideas could begin immediately, without any cumbersome rule making process, it seems to us,” Balch added.
“It can expedite the charge that the CHRB has put forward to improve safety and reduce accidents still more, and do so on an inclusive basis with all constituent members,” Balch said.
In response to the potential taskforce presentation, the CHRB Medication, Safety, and Welfare Committee appeared largely favorable to the idea, with members asking fairly perfunctory questions.
Ferraro asked, for example, if the taskforce would be populated with all relevant constituents.
In response, Balch bemoaned the siloed nature of current stakeholder organizations, and said the taskforce could be a way to knit together the industry's fractured ranks.
“This could be a way to get us back on track” considering the shared interest in “reducing injuries and accidents further,” said Balch.
Ferraro also asked if the taskforce would address the CHRB directly with recommendations.
“Absolutely,” said Balch. He added that while there might be legal issues concerning the working practicalities between the taskforce and the CHRB, “I think participation and observation by the CHRB is very important in something like this, because the regulator is neutral.”
The CHRB chief veterinary officer, Jeff Blea, called the taskforce a “very thoughtful, progressive suggestion,” and discussed some of the ways in which some existing academic research into injury prevention could be woven into the possible program.
“There are currently procedures in place that go on under the radar that people aren't aware of that I think could apply or be applicable to a body of work that you're talking about,” said Blea.
As an example, Blea pointed to the necropsy review process, conducted at UC Davis, through which studies are conducted on cause, effect and prevention, as well as the state's broader mortality review program.
“Hand in hand, that program could help you better define the taskforce,” said Blea.
Blea also discussed the work being done at UC Davis on a predictive model to look at proximal sesamoid bone fractures, the number one cause of musculoskeletal breakdown.
“As far as the taskforce, I think from my position I'd be happy to be a part of that,” said Blea. “And I could bring what the university has to offer to lend a scientific arm in addition to the practical aspect of that program.”