Race day vets

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race day vets
Photography: pripir – 123RF

Race day vets play a critical role in keeping the horses and their jockeys safe. But it takes a special type of person to take up the role. Tracey Porter reports

Every vet likes to consider themselves an advocate for animals. But rarely is their commitment to the cause more closely dissected than when they are offering veterinary services to the horse racing industry. 

While research shows that the incidence of racehorse deaths is relatively rare, after 149 racehorses died on track in the 12 months to July 31, 2021, Australia’s horse racing industry came in for some heavy criticism, as did the country’s most celebrated race—the Melbourne Cup—where six racehorse deaths have occurred in the past seven years.

The reasons behind these premature deaths are complex and varied in nature. However, few would argue that were it not for the extraordinary dedication of a talented group of race day veterinarians determined to do their bit to help the sport’s governing bodies protect the welfare of the participants, the final tally could have been much higher.

Broadly speaking, the role of the race day vet falls into four main categories: the welfare of the racehorses; attending each race start at the barriers; fairness of racing, and drug testing.

Dr Lesley Hawson, an internationally recognised leader in equitation science who has worked as a Harness Racing Victoria veterinarian since 2017, says the main role of the race day veterinarian is to identify any abnormalities in the horses they are examining and to provide first aid if required on race day. The examination is an important part of ensuring animal welfare and integrity standards, she says.

While each vet has his or her own method of conducting a physical exam, Dr Hawson says most will include confirmation of the horse’s identity, an examination of the horse’s heart rate and heart sounds with a stethoscope, and an assessment of the horse’s respiratory system to determine how much effort is being required of the horse, and any discharges. 

Race day vets will often need to check the horse’s musculoskeletal system while an examination of the horse’s mucous membranes and capillary refill time offers a good indication of the health of the animal’s cardiovascular and respiratory systems.

Serious problems may require immediate referral to a specialist centre or euthanasia, however any treatments and instructions provided by the race day veterinarian will also be recorded on the official examination report and recorded by event stewards.

Dr Lesley Hawson, Harness Racing Victoria

Sometimes the vet will also need to undertake an assessment of the horse’s mentation and behaviour as horses that are heat-stressed, exhausted or in pain will often show “abnormal behaviours”.

As the horse’s representative at races, the race day vet may have to diagnose a problem that has an automatic standdown period applied such as cardiac arrhythmias, bleeding attacks or when they find evidence of infectious diseases. 

“Serious problems may require immediate referral to a specialist centre or euthanasia, however any treatments and instructions provided by the race day veterinarian will also be recorded on the official examination report and recorded by event stewards,” she says.

Prioritising welfare

For Peter Curl, the newly appointed chief veterinary officer at Racing NSW, the principal responsibility of any race day vet is to protect the safety and welfare of racehorses and by extension, the safety and welfare of “the jockeys on their backs”.

But competition duty is not just based on an individual horse’s performance on the track or lack thereof, he says.

“On race days we ensure that everything is in place to hold a safe meeting and work closely with the stipendiary stewards to coordinate and perform pre- and post-race testing of horses to ensure compliance with the rules of racing. We oversee horse welfare and assess suitability to race right up until the horses jump from the starting gates. Furthermore, we are responsible for ensuring the prompt and professional management of injuries that may occur,” he says.

After racing, it falls to race day vets to carefully assess all horses coming off the track for potential injuries such as wounds and abrasions, and to monitor for anything that may impact a horse’s performance.

To qualify as race day vet

Currently Dr Curl leads a team of four full-time vets directly employed by NSW and a team of more than 20 consultant vets knowledgeable of race day protocols and procedures who help service race meetings throughout the state.

There has definitely—and rightfully—been an increasing interest in, and scrutiny of, the use of animals for sport and entertainment, which I personally feel is a good thing. It is up to us, the industry, to be able to demonstrate that we are doing the right thing by the horse.

Peter Curl, chief veterinary officer, Racing NSW

Under the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) policy relating to the provision of optimum veterinary services to the horse racing industry, at least one veterinarian must attend all race meetings. The policy states that any vet officiating at race meetings or official barrier trials must be approved by the Principal Racing Authority under which they are employed. They are also required to be experienced equine veterinarians or under the supervision or mentorship of an experienced equine veterinarian.

To ensure they are adhering to standards that are deemed necessary for the welfare of the horses and the integrity of racing, the policy states that any vet providing services to the horse racing industry should be a member of the AVA and its special interest group, Equine Veterinarians Australia, and should abide by the Code of Professional Conduct of the AVA. 

In the public eye

Dr Curl says professional qualifications and industry memberships aside, the key to becoming a good race day vet is to be experienced in racetrack practice and be familiar with the racing industry

“Above all, you must have a genuine interest in horse welfare and unquestionable integrity. As far as personal qualities—empathy, commonsense, discretion and diplomacy skills, and an ability to work under pressure.”

He says while public scrutiny and being placed in difficult and sometimes unpleasant situations defending official decisions can be tough, it comes with the territory. 

“There has definitely—and rightfully—been an increasing interest in, and scrutiny of, the use of animals for sport and entertainment, which I personally feel is a good thing. It is up to us, the industry, to be able to demonstrate that we are doing the right thing by the horse, that we are responsible regulators of the sport and that we do all we can to safeguard the welfare of its central participants. 

“In many ways this has emphasised the importance of the veterinarian’s role and has enabled us to perform our job to a higher standard to meet the public’s expectations.”

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