As the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority fights multiple lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the new organization, it remains to be seen when, whether, and how it will implement new rules. It has been made clear by those working for the Authority so far that it will not be a night-to-day change between June 30 and July 2, 2022, especially since the Anti-Doping and Medication Control Program will not go into effect until Jan. 1, 2023. There will also be a phase-in process for its Racetrack Safety Program, which in many ways will seek to codify best practices suggested by the NTRA’s Safety and Integrity Alliance and the Association of Racing Commissioners International.
Assuming the Authority is able to bring about this change, there are a few jurisdictions and racetracks that will be in for a rude awakening. In this series, we take a look at where American racing stands now with key parts of the new regulations. What do we know about the history behind new rules? How have some states fared after implementing safety rules voluntarily? What has stopped some jurisdictions from adopting these changes on their own?
We hope this pre-HISA snapshot can inform fans and those in the racing industry about the changes ahead.
Find Part 1 in this series, on hair testing out-of-competition, here; Part 2 on void claim rules here; and Part 3 on jockey safety protocols here.
One of the most critical elements of racing safety may be the pre-race veterinary examination. Some of the recent changes in medication regulation in key racing states have been based around keeping horses as honest as possible, not just for their race but for their morning soundness exam to reduce the risk of injury. The procedure provides an opportunity for veterinarians to give extra scrutiny to horses whose race or workout records indicate they may be high risk, and to compare notes to previous exams to pick up on any early warnings of a condition that could lead to injury.
But while regulations in some states grant veterinarians the opportunity to do pre-race examinations on every entry, not all of them are doing that – and that’s a problem, because as of July 2, the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority will require it.
For some time now, the American Association of Equine Practitioners has sounded the alarm about an impending shortage of equine veterinarians. According to racing regulators, the crisis has arrived.
Ismael “Izzy” Trejo, executive director of the New Mexico Racing Commission, says that while state regulation allows regulatory veterinarians to screen all horses before races, only about 20 to 30 percent of runners in the state are actually seeing a veterinarian in the morning before they run.
“We’re not where we should be in regards to pre-race exams in the state of New Mexico,” said Trejo.
Trejo said the state has one vet on contract and another on staff to cover 206 race days across overlapping race meets. They work with stewards to create a high risk list based on past performances and regulatory data, and those are the horses selected for screening. The exam itself is thorough, with palpation and flexion required as well as watching horses in motion. There is veterinary oversight in the paddock and during the post parade, as there are in most places, in case a horse warms up awkwardly or has a profound enough lameness to show up during saddling. But, Trejo admits, it’s not ideal – and the state is paying a lot for a less-than-ideal situation.
“It costs the agency upwards of $1,000 a day [for the contract worker],” said Trejo of the rate the state is paying for veterinarians currently. “It’s a struggle to survive. We’re all fighting for veterinarians.”
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(Perhaps oddly, Trejo pointed out, New Mexico’s fatality rate has varied independently of this vet shortage, with some meets coming in well below the national average. Last year, Zia Park’s meet had 1.28 fatalities per 1,000 starts and the Downs at Albuquerque had 1.03 per 1,000, notably below the 1.39 national average.)
New Mexico isn’t alone in its struggles; Arizona has been examining only a portion of horses pre-race because its commission has been understaffed. Delaware typically starts its summer with three state vets and a few alternates in case one should call in sick. This year, Delaware Park started the season with two and no back-ups. Pre-race exams have continued as usual there, but the state had to change a regulation to allow a veterinary technician to draw blood in the test barn – a job that had previously been done by a vet.
Commissions aren’t the only ones who can’t find equine veterinarians to work for them; some race meets are short on private practitioners, too. Trejo said he believes the most recent 17-day Sunray Park meet had just one or two private practitioners on site to care for 700 to 800 horses, though others like the Ruidoso meet are better-staffed. Delaware regulators had to pass an emergency rule change allowing Lasix to be administered by private practitioners this season after the veterinary practice that normally gives third-party Lasix informed the state it didn’t have enough staff to do it.
What’s the problem?
The number of vets in equine practice has been dwindling in recent years. A study from the American Veterinary Medical Association found only 1 percent of veterinary students plan to go into equine practice, down from 4 percent in the mid-2000s. Studies have also shown that five years after graduating veterinary school, half of new equine vets will have switched fields.
Anyone with horses knows the hours caring for them are long, unpredictable, and filled with risk of injury. Equine vets often get paid significantly less than small animal vets, which is a tough pill to swallow for those starting their careers with an average of over $188,000 in debt. A 2020 survey of vet school graduates found that those accepting jobs in equine practices were reporting starting salaries averaging $56,000, while those in small animal were reporting starting salaries of $93,000.
“They just graduated; maybe they’re looking at getting married, maybe having children and they’re saying, ‘Wow. I’ve got to make the right choice – the financially responsible choice,” said Dr. Amy Grice, veterinary business consultant.
And, because there are so few of them, the equine vets who remain in practice are being stretched thinner and thinner. Veterinary technicians are getting hard to find too, leaving the vets who have continued working with even more to do.
The racing sphere can be an especially tough place to work. As race meets rotate between tracks or states, regulatory and private veterinarians alike have to travel with them. While equine veterinarians in other businesses charge for examinations and diagnoses, many racing vets bill only for treatments, sometimes setting up the expectation they’ll act as dispensers more than expert practitioners.
Read our previous reporting on the many factors in the equine veterinary shortage.
What HISA will do
On July 2, all horses will be required to pass a veterinary exam pre-race.
States that have signed regulatory agreements with HISA will have their veterinarians enforce the rules that go into effect July 2. For states where there is no agreement in place, HISA will have to send its own set of officials. Many wonder if that means HISA will soon be hiring more equine vets – and whether they’re going to offer more competitive compensation than states can.
Fees for any additional veterinarians hired by HISA will be passed on to racetracks.
Kentucky Horse Racing Commission equine medical director Dr. Bruce Howard said that his team is prepared to comply with HISA’s pre-race exam requirements, which are already the standard practice. Howard said the KHRC’s team has not faced the same staff shortage that other jurisdictions have, and the private practitioner population is keeping up with existing needs.
“We’ve had – I wouldn’t say trouble finding veterinarians, but it’s a constant thing, where just when we think we have enough staff, someone may retire,” said Howard. “Right now we’re doing very well.
“When I’m talking to someone about a potential hire, I guess we approach things just a little bit different than a private practitioner. I can stress some of our benefits are that there’s no after-hours on-call time, there’s no emergency call. I was in private practice so I know how challenging that can be. We can guarantee they’ll have a certain number of days off, so we can do a little bit better than private practice that way.”
But Kentucky is probably the exception rather than the rule. In New Mexico, Trejo said the veterinarian who works for the state came out of retirement to do so, and he knows of other jurisdictions that have also coaxed vets back to work to cover short meets. He knows that won’t be an option forever.
Since New Mexico’s racing commission did not agree to pay HISA’s bill to the state, the responsibility of hiring extra personnel will fall on the racetrack. Trejo expects the racetrack veterinarian and state vets can work together to achieve the requirements of the Authority since there’s a healthy mix between Thoroughbreds and other breeds, and HISA only applies to Thoroughbred racehorses.
“We’ve got to work as a team because we don’t have a lot of resources here in New Mexico,” he said. “We’ll certainly work with the racetracks to fulfill the requirements of HISA. If it’s 100 percent for Thoroughbreds, we could probably achieve that pretty easily, because that’s probably between three and five races a day.
“It’s not going to hit us that hard initially.”
No one seems sure how the upcoming HISA implementation will impact the vet shortage, but Grice, the veterinary business consultant, said the status quo is going to have to change throughout the equine industry, HISA or no HISA.
“The primary pain points are compensation and a family-friendly culture,” said Grice. “And there are even people without families who want to work less than 60 or 70 hours per week. Millennials want to actually have a life. In the old days, your life was equine practice and if that’s not what you wanted, to live/breathe equine practice and do nothing else, then you didn’t belong. People who have experienced that, coming in and feeling like they don’t belong will say, ‘Ok. I guess I don’t belong. I’ll go somewhere else.’
“Part of it is a cultural change. And change is hard.”