Maryland holds productive meeting on equine health and welfare issues

A large group of horsemen and veterinarians gathered July 2 at Laurel Park to discuss equine health and welfare issues and a strategy to bolster protocol, rules and regulations.

The meeting, which drew about 150 people, was organized by the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, Maryland Jockey Club and Maryland Racing Commission. It stemmed in part from action taken in California in the wake of a series of catastrophic injuries at Santa Anita Park during its recent meet.

“We wanted to discuss the ramifications of what happened in California,” MTHA President Tim Keefe said. “We’re not meeting to jam protocols down your throat but to offer a chance to have a discussion (about the issues).”

The overall message was for the backstretch community to have heightened awareness of equine health, welfare and safety in light of increased scrutiny from the public and anti-racing groups.

“I don’t make money from the horseracing industry,” MRC Chairman Mike Algeo said. “I’m not in the industry—I just happen to be the chair. Your industry is under attack from the outside, and it does not need to be under attack from within.

“We’re doing everything we’ve been charged to do.  The racing commission has your back, and it will do everything it can to support you. We do not want what happened (in California) to happen here. We want to be proactive and be out in front of this issue.

“If you do your job, we will do ours.”

MRC Executive Director Mike Hopkins relayed a letter from state Equine Medical Director Dr. Libby Daniel on the challenges faced by Maryland racing.

“We are a line of defense in protecting the horse, jockey, the public, and our entire industry,” Daniel said. “We are trying to identify horses at risk. Those are the horses we intend to scrutinize heavily. Do your own due diligence—exam your own horses. Watch them jog before we get there. Be part of the pre-race exam. Watch when we examine your horse. Help us make the right decision.

“We are asking for and expecting complete transparency from you.”

“It takes everyone in this room to cooperate,” said Hopkins, who went through a list of potential regulatory changes or improvements to current practices. “We need to get information to the proper people to ensure proper judgements are made.”

Much of what was discussed is listed in the Mid-Atlantic Strategic Plan for Reducing Racehorse Fatalities, a document released in late March after agreement among stakeholders in seven racing jurisdictions. Each attendee at the July 2 meeting received a copy of the plan and was urged to read it.

“We are doing this regionally,” Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association Chairman Alan Foreman said. “We firmly believe if we follow this plan we will reduce the number of equine fatalities. The way you get out of this mess is to do better.”

The overall fatality rate at Mid-Atlantic tracks has dropped since 2012 when a series of reforms were enacted in New York and then the rest of the region. Officials have noted the progress but said it must continue.

“It’s not just about breakdowns, it’s also about character,” MJC President Sal Sinatra said. “Err on the side of caution. And we’re not going to pressure people to run horses. We need to protect each other. We’d like to make Maryland the gem of the Mid-Atlantic and the gem of the industry.”

Several horsemen at the meeting suggested that racing surfaces are a big part of the safety equation, and they requested more communication with management in that regard. They also asked for a defined chain of command so they know they appropriate people to go to when they have issues.

To that end, Sinatra announced that former trainer Tim Tullock will serve as the MJC Safety Steward effective immediately. Tullock said he will be “very visible on the racetrack in the morning” and also plans to make regular trips to Pimlico Race Course, which is open year-round for training.

“If you have a problem, let me know,” Tullock said.

Horsemen also expressed interest in having formal meetings such as the one on July 2 on a regular basis to further foster communication and exchange of information on current events, policies, and any potential changes in regulation.

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