Derby Precautions

That there were no accidents in the Kentucky Derby was no accident. Everything that could be done to ensure the safety of the horses was done, including an impartial physical inspection of every entrant the morning of the race. Of course in Kentucky, and in some other racing jurisdictions, examination of runners by the state racing commission veterinarian's staff is a fact of life every day horses break from the gate.

For a race as visible as the Kentucky Derby, there are a few extra precautions taken, said George Mundy, chief veterinarian for the Kentucky Racing Commission. For the past four years, the horses have been watched during workouts each day of the week leading up to the Kentucky Derby. But that is necessary, he said, because many of the horses are being seen for the first time by the state veterinarian's staff.

"If we know the horse and we have five minutes to watch them warm up before a race, then we can see if anything is different for that horse," said Mundy. "In this case, watching them for the week lets us establish what is normal for that horse that we aren't familiar with. Then if there are any changes on raceday, we know."

Mundy said the week-long observation is necessary to let the veterinarians know if the horse has any peculiarities.

"If the horse has a different way of going, we get to know that and don't mistake it for a problem on raceday," he explained. "If something is different on raceday, then we can do something about it."

The raceday inspection not only benefits the horses, which can be scratched by the stewards if the commission veterinarian so dictates, but the horsemen as well.

"From the time we instituted this procedure, everyone has been extremely cooperative," said Mundy. "We're trying to get the horsemen in the best shape possible, too. This way if there is a problem, we can verify in an official capacity that the horse was fit and sound before the race. It's a benefit that everyone sees. It's another layer in the process that helps everyone."

There are five veterinarians working on the Racing Commission team on Derby Day instead of the usual three. This is necessary because the crowds inhibit quick movement around the track. (This year, Churchill Downs had it's third-largest crowd with more than 142,000 people.) There were two veterinarians in the paddock to look at the horses being saddled, one in the test barn to act as a communications liaison, one on the backside of the racetrack where one ambulance was stationed, and one on the final turn where the other ambulance was positioned and where the race started. Mundy joined the ambulance at the final turn after the start of the race.

This same type of monitoring system is used at the Breeders' Cup day of championship Thoroughbred races each fall. Mundy has been the Breeders' Cup veterinary consultant since the inception of the inspection team in 1991.

In working in cooperation with the AAEP's On Call team, the first item on the agenda if a horse is injured during a race is to make a positive identification of the animal. This assures that the attending veterinarian can be notified immediately to meet the horse back at the barn, and the On Call veterinarians will know exactly what is transpiring on the track. While one veterinarian is taking care of communications, the other is doing a preliminary assessment of the injury. The horse is stabilized and loaded on the Kimzey ambulance (which can be lowered to be flush with the ground so an injured horse does not have to step up as with a normal van).

There are sponges and water on the ambulance so the horse can be cooled, and unless the injury is life-threatening and requires immediate surgery, the horse is taken to its own barn on the backside where it will be more comfortable and calm.

"We want to quickly stabilize the horse, transport him to his barn, and put him in the hands of the proper veterinarian," said Mundy. "The ambulance is highway-ready, so if the horse needs immediate attention at a surgical facility, we don't even have to unload him. Equine Services in Simpsonville (not far from the track) was on alert on Derby Day to take any cases that needed surgery if the attending practitioner deemed it was necessary."

So while those in attendance, and those watching on television, probably never were aware of the medical attention being paid to these horses, the event was better because of their work.

About the Author

Kimberly S. Brown

Kimberly S. Brown was the Publisher/Editor of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care from June 2008 to March 2010, and she served in various positions at Blood-Horse Publications since 1980.

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