By: Tom LaMarra
The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission will almost triple the number of veterinarians it has on a typical race day to assist with the two biggest programs of the year May 6-7 at Churchill Downs.
In addition, the KHRC well in advance of the Longines Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (both gr. I) directed a comprehensive out-of-competition testing program to ensure test results were returned before the Oaks, Derby, and 11 other graded stakes scheduled over the two days.
Planning for Derby week began last November, KHRC equine medical director Mary Scollay said. The veterinary team includes six full-time KHRC employees, five supplemental vets, three volunteers from Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital, and three vet technicians.
“We have a number of interim employees that work for us on an ad hoc basis,” Scollay said. “And we don’t train anybody Derby week; everybody is experienced with what we’re doing.”
The vets are responsible for racehorse exams, both in the barns and on the track throughout the week; administration of race-day furosemide, also known as Lasix or Salix; drawing blood from all starters in graded stakes for TCO2 testing; and treating horses that may be in distress on the track.
Dr. Liz Santschi, professor of equine surgery at Kansas State University, will be on hand in case of emergencies and assists with exams throughout the week, Scollay said.
“We look at the horses at least twice before their race-day exams,” Scollay said. “If there is a question (about a horse), we can get it answered rather than make hasty or unfounded decisions (late in the process) and give trainers time to respond to the concerns. We also observe the horses regularly when they jog or gallop.”
Post-race tests are performed on samples from a minimum of four horses in graded stakes—at least five in the Derby. Scollay said KHRC testing protocol exceeds the “super test” standards set by the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association for graded stakes, and that goes for all races in the state.
“We no longer have tiered testing,” Scollay said. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to distinguish between the class of the horse when it comes to racing. Safety is safety and integrity is integrity. Neither one is negotiable.”
Dr. Rick Sams, who operates LGC Science, the Lexington laboratory that handles Kentucky’s equine drug testing, will be on site Oaks and Derby days so he can transport blood and urine samples to the lab each evening. Scollay said the results of tests on Friday’s races will be available Monday, and the results from Saturday’s races on Tuesday.
Out-of-competition testing was performed on all Derby and Oaks starters as well as about 50% of those entered in graded stakes on the Friday and Saturday programs. Scollay said the KHRC worked with regulators in states such as California, Florida, and New York to get samples drawn from expected starters about a month ago.
“We try to be a little less predictable about when we sample horses,” said Scollay, who noted some other jurisdictions may take samples when horses are entered or on race day, which means the test results can’t be available before the race is run.
Kentucky is planning to expand its out-of-competition testing program, Scollay said.
“We currently focus on stakes because they’re easy to identify,” she said. “This year we’re working harder to expand out-of-competition testing to make it more inclusive of all levels of racing in Kentucky. It’s a deficiency—we need to do better with it. We’re coming up with a plan to do that.”
The KHRC also brings in investigators from other states to assist with Derby week security along with Churchill Downs staff. Scollay said officials review how things go each year to see if improvements are needed in protocol or staffing.
“You have to be careful, though, and avoid the need to one-up every year,” she said. “You need to ask yourself if you’re making a difference or if you’re doing it just for the perception. We have a good program in Kentucky and it works well. We’re not going to make a change for the sake of making a change.”