Considering the Intricacies of Pre-Race Inspections
As Kentucky Derby and Oaks starters turn in their final workouts and gallops this week, they’ll be watched closely by Kentucky Horse Racing Commission officials as part of a long-term surveillance program aimed at clean and healthy racing.
Dr. Mary Scollay, equine medical director for the commission, said commission veterinarians are posted trackside at Churchill throughout this week, making observations as horses go out for morning exercise. At least twice during the week prior to race day, each horse will also go through a soundness exam back at the barn.
“If a concern arises as a result of one of those exams, we’ve got time to ask for additional exams, diagnostics, whatever we need to do to answer the question responsibly before race day,” said Scollay.
As is standard for all races, horses are examined again the morning of their race.
The Kentucky commission brings in help from outside veterinarians during the week, to manage the workload for commission veterinarians, but also for the benefit of their third-party experience. Dr. Liz Santschi of Ohio State has helped with pre-race inspections since 2009; she’s a board-certified surgeon, which means she comes to the inspections with a qualified but slightly different perspective.
“She’s an objective set of eyes. She’s not involved in the relationships within the industry, so she can bring an outside objective perspective and keep us focused,” Scollay said. “There’s a lot of excitement that week and I want to make sure we’re doing our job, blinkers on, despite all of that.”
The Jockey Club’s InCompass computer system, used by nearly all racetracks in the country, helps Kentucky officials get some background on each horse. The system will tell the commission whether any of the runners has ever been on a veterinarian’s list and the reason for their placement on the list (which could include medication or therapy reports, or soundness concerns ahead of a race). InCompass also provides the opportunity for veterinarians in other jurisdictions to add notes about a horse’s condition during pre-race exams, which could help Kentucky officials determine whether a particular movement quirk is standard for an individual, or a new development.
“In terms of physical exams, a number of these horses we’ve already seen so we have records on them,” Scollay said. “If it’s our first contact with them, we can look back and see what their history is.”
Veterinarians have to use their judgment during this period of observation. A minor cut isn’t necessarily a reason to scratch a horse, but it could become one if it blows up with inflammation and infection through the week. If veterinarians have concerns that a problem won’t be resolved ahead of the race, they will likely consult with the trainer and provide connections the chance to scratch the horse, rather than wait until race day and perform a veterinarian-initiated scratch.
Derby and Oaks horses have also been subjected to out-of-competition testing (OOCT), which started in early to mid-April and will run through this week. Some horses have been sampled multiple times, and sampling is conducted several spaces down the list of Derby qualifiers, so testing may include horses that won’t end up drawing into the race but who may appear in undercard stakes. Kentucky works with authorities in various locations to collect samples for horses based outside the jurisdiction (including Thunder Snow, who is based in Dubai).
After the controversy surrounding Masochistic’s positive finding for stanozolol after the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, it’s important to note there are limits on the timeline for action, should a Derby or Oaks horse have a positive OOCT. Masochistic had been legally administered stanozolol outside the restricted 60-day timeframe before Breeders’ Cup weekend and been positive for the steroid in OOCT but was permitted to run. This raised questions about the usefulness of OOCT to the betting public, since many fans (and the horse’s owner) assumed a positive OOCT would automatically result in a scratch by the stewards.
Depending upon the timeframe of a positive test, Kentucky officials could theoretically be in a similar pickle. An OOCT sample is tested twice by the state’s laboratory – once during routine screening and one ‘confirmatory analysis’ if it was positive in screening — before it’s officially considered positive. From there, the trainer has the legal right to request a split sample be tested by an additional lab. Until the sample is confirmed by Kentucky and the split sample results returned, the commission can take no action. That means if an OOCT sample comes up positive close enough to the big race, there may not be time to perform a confirmatory test and test the split ahead of the race.
In Kentucky, a trainer may receive a suspension in addition to redistribution of purse monies accumulated between the time of the OOCT sample collection and the testing of the split sample, so connections of a Derby or Oaks runner with a positive OOCT would ultimately receive sanctions … but they might still be permitted to bring the horse to the post. They would do so running the risk of a positive post-race test as well, which occurred in the Masochistic case.
On the other hand, a trainer contemplating use of a performance-enhancing substance runs the risk of criticism from the public, should a split sample from an OOCT come back positive and initiate regulatory action, or in the event of a post-race finding.
This time lag is a problem for OOCT programs everywhere, and Scollay said she hasn’t come up with a solution that affords both legal due process to the trainer and total protection for the betting public.
“If we were to suspend OOCT prior to a specific event to leave a sufficient window for split sample analysis (which can take upwards of 6 weeks), we would be leaving the door wide open for those who would violate the rule to do so without fear of retribution,” said Scollay. “I recognize that within the current regulatory structure, there can be inadequate protections for the wagering public. But in government regulated entities, individuals are assured of due process (by the Constitution), and that won’t (and shouldn’t) change. If racing were run as a private ‘club’ along the lines of the FEI (Federation Equestre Internationale) or AHSA (American Horse Show Association), then it would be a different story. But it’s not.”