Wednesday, June 6, 2012

And They're Off!

This weekend the third and longest leg of Thoroughbred racing's triple crown, the Belmont Stakes, will run. Most spectators will watch with interest, excitement and maybe a little awe at the powerful, fluid beauty of a colt in full gallop. But some, those who've seen the accidents and tended to the injuries of a race horse, will hold their breaths with a little fear and hope rather than pure anticipation of a spectacular finish. We're hoping they all do in fact finish.

According to statistics from the Equine Injury Database for U.S and Canadian tracks which included information for 90% of flat racing days in North America, fatalinjury rates for Thoroughbred race starts between 2008 and 2010 declined to 2 deaths per 1000 starts. In actual numbers for those 2 years, 1510 horses suffered an injury so severe during a race that they were euthanized. Those numbers don't include horses injured in training.

Harness Racing
(Courtesy of

And they don't yet include statistics on Standardbreds, the trotting and pacing harness race horses with whom I am more familiar. Standardbreds are a physically sturdier breed than their flat racing cousins and often race into their teens. Although they have their share of injuries, often complicated by the equipment they wear and the "race bikes" they pull, my impression is that fatal injuries are a bit less common than in the Thoroughbred world.

However, accidents do happen and I know of at least one Standardbred filly who survived a career but not life-ending injury because I was too newly minted as a vet to accept general wisdom and her owner, who happened to be my boss, was willing to take a big chance on saving her.

Michigan has a Sire Stakes program, a collection of high-purse races especially for young horses sired by Michigan stallions and designed to support the state's equine industry. Purse money for the Stakes and Futurity races comes from the Agriculture Equine Fund, which is mainly derived from a charge on live and simulcast wagers. In many respects, it's an example of an industry supporting and nurturing itself, as wagers on older race horses support purse money for the youngest and those who bred and raised them.

Unfortunately the program has been repeatedly gutted by political maneuvering. For example, legislators began a recent Agriculture and Equine Industry Fund Rules, (MCL 432.320, section 20), with the statement,

"(1) It is the policy of this state to encourage the breeding of horses of all breeds in this state and the ownership of such promote the positive growth and development of high quality horse racing and other equine competitions in this state as a business and entertainment establish and preserve the substantial agricultural and commercial benefits of the horse racing and breeding industry to the state of Michigan. It is the intent of the legislature to...adequately fund the agriculture and equine industry programs established by this section."

Sounds good, the details followed, then the conclusion:

"(17) Two million dollars shall be transferred from the Michigan agriculture equine industry development fund to the general fund in the fiscal year ending September 30, 2006."

Two million dollars from the equine fund, poof, gone! No explanation or accounting offered.
Small wonder the Michigan harness racing industry, which employs an estimated 12,000 people, is currently struggling for survival. With "encouragement" from Lansing like that and what many consider unfair tactics by casino interests, who needs a tough economy? However, Michigan harness racing once enjoyed greater support and better days and such was the case when Verona Bea Thor began her racing career.

Optimistically nominated by entry payments to the Sires Stakes program as a foal, Bea, her barn name, was a slender trotting filly of uncommon good sense. She spent a couple of summers growing up on pasture and learning her ground manners and entered training as a yearling. In part because of all the equipment they wear, harness horses are taught to be a great deal calmer than racing Thoroughbreds. No jumping and dancing and rearing allowed when they take to the starting gate. Though a little nervous at the newness of it all, Bea nonetheless loaded well and trailered to various race locations around the state, which is why she was several hours from home when the call came from her trainer.

Bea had gone down on the track and it looked bad. It wasn’t clear if veterinary care simply wasn’t available or if no one wanted to chance doing something wrong andmaking it worse. In the end, Bea’s injured leg was wrapped as well as possible and she toughed out a very long ride home before x-rays could be taken. Our worst fears were confirmed when the films were developed and revealed a shattered pastern bone. Comminuted is the medical term, in this case it meant the bone just below her fetlock, (the long pastern), was in over a dozen pieces.

Bones in a Horse's Foot
A Coffin Bone
B Navicular Bone
C Short Pastern Bone
D Long Pastern Bone
E Sesamoid Bone
F Cannon Bone

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