Racetrack Ambulance Protocol Examined After Breeders' Cup Injuries

The sight of Fleet Indian standing in discomfort at the top of the Churchill Downs stretch while waiting for an equine ambulance during the running of the Nov. 4 Emirates Airline Breeders' Cup Distaff is something owner Paul Saylor will never forget. And it is something he hopes other owners will never have to endure.

The delay in responding to the injured Fleet Indian highlighted the need and importance of equine ambulances on the racetrack. Though it happened on Breeders' Cup day, injury and on-track accidents can occur just as easily on a regular Thursday afternoon card as on big-event days.

"The whole issue (of available equine ambulances) is an everyday racing issue," Saylor said. "The critical nature of it gets exacerbated on big-event days with full fields and a national television audience.

"My point has been since the Distaff--and I think this has been admitted to by all of the parties involved--that there was a serious lack of coordination that prohibited prompt medical attention to be given to, in this case a horse, but it could very well have been a jockey."

As a direct result of the 2006 Distaff, Oaklawn Park purchased a second equine ambulance for its track.

"We want to be proactive and stay on top of things," said David Longinotti, assistant general manager of Oaklawn. "After the events of the Breeders' Cup, we knew we had to do something. We had to get one step ahead."

At least one equine and one human ambulance is required at all licensed racetracks during training and racing hours, but many states fail to specify where they should be located and who is required to man them.

On the other side of the coin, the New York Racing Association has always kept two equine ambulances on the backside near a gap during morning training and during the races in the afternoon. Daniel Toomey, New York State Racing and Wagering Board public information officer, said it is the responsibility of the racing association, through the stewards--one from the racing association, one from The Jockey Club, and one from the racing and wagering board--to maintain and man the ambulances.

Toomey said New York does not change its procedures for big-event days, nor did it modify its emergency management plan following last year's Breeders' Cup.

Saylor became a crusader for improved equine safety after Fleet Indian suffered an injury to her left front suspensory ligament during the Distaff. Fleet Indian underwent surgery to fuse her fetlock joint, and she has since been retired and resides at Taylor Made Farm near Nicholasville, Ky., where she is in foal to Storm Cat.

At the time of Fleet Indian's injury, Kentucky Horse Racing Authority executive director Lisa Underwood said two equine ambulances were on duty. One ambulance was located near the quarter pole and the second ambulance was parked beside the test barn on the track's backside, where the state veterinarian was working. The ambulance parked near the quarter pole was dispatched to assist Phipps Stables' homebred Pine Island, who broke down on the backstretch during the Distaff and was later euthanatized. The ambulance at the test barn was sent to aid Fleet Indian. However, there was a lengthy delay before its arrival.

Kentucky racing regulations require association tracks to provide and maintain at least one horse and one human ambulance whenever horses are permitted to exercise or race. The ambulances must be ready for immediate duty and must be located at an entrance to the racing strip.

"I have read the regulations that are now in print and they specifically require only one jockey ambulance and one horse ambulance be available," Saylor said of the Kentucky regulations. "They do specify they have to be manned by a driver and a vet. They don't say the state vet can be pulling double duty in the test barn. They also don't say they have to be parked by a readily accessible gate."

Pam Blatz-Murff, senior vice president, Breeders' Cup operations, said both ambulances began Breeders' Cup day parked near the Churchill Downs maintenance yard near the quarter-mile pole. However, the second ambulance was relocated to the test barn from its original position after the first race on the card. The relocation of the ambulance and its inability to navigate backside traffic, combined with a locked gate, resulted in the delay.

After the Breeders' Cup, Blatz-Murff said a letter was sent to the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority recapping what the Breeders' Cup thought went wrong and what it felt could be improved. Blatz-Murff said the KHRA did not respond to the letter.

"As far as I know, the Breeders' Cup and the KHRA were going to work to change the regulations in a formal sense or at least compile a set of informal regulations that would govern daily racing, as well as major events," Saylor said.

Underwood said the KHRA is continuing to review the state's racing regulations, and the policy on equine ambulances are included in that review. She also said the KHRA plans to meet with Churchill Downs before Kentucky Derby day to review the injury management plan.

In addition to upholding state regulations, the Breeders' Cup suggested to the KHRA the panel of veterinarians that inspect all horses both physically and in motion on the track should have the racetrack veterinarian participate during the week leading up to the event.

Using the Churchill Downs oval as an example, Breeders' Cup also suggested two ambulances should be located on the track during the entire race program, where they will not be blocked by closed or locked gates. One could be located at the quarter pole and the second at the three-quarter chute. Each ambulance should have a driver, horse handler, veterinarian, and security to assist.

Another recommendation urged enhanced communication with the appropriate persons and a centralized command post, with a dedicated radio frequency for each ambulance driver, the starters, outriders, stewards, track veterinarians, and track superintendent. The command post would be responsible for the dispatch of the ambulance and ensuring communications are uninterrupted.

The final recommendation looked at all major events when the infield is obstructed by tents. In that case, there would be a spotter with a radio in a location that is not blocked from view who can alert the team immediately if a horse has gone down or has been pulled up.

"When a horse gets injured, the best-made plans sometimes do not get implemented," Blatz-Murff said. "We all learned from the events of the Breeders' Cup and we will all make improvements in the future."

The same recommendations that were passed along to the KHRA were also sent to the New Jersey Racing Commission as a guide for planning the 2007 Breeders' Cup at Monmouth Park.

As a follow-up to the letter that was sent to the KHRA and the events of the 2006 Distaff, the Breeders' Cup has formed an Injury Management and Health Committee to review the organization's current policies on the management of on-track injuries.

"Breeders' Cup has always had an injury management team that is made up of the panel of veterinarians we bring in from around the country that work to do injury management," said Blatz-Murff. "But this year, we are going to have a couple of different committees that work together. We are going to take another look at some of the protocols that we are doing and change our procedures, if necessary."

The Injury Management Committee will be made up of Rick Arthur, DVM, Peter Timoney, FRCVS, PhD, a representative from the New Jersey Racing Commission, Saylor, Blatz-Murff, and representatives from Monmouth Park. The group will meet in the days leading up to the event to analyze protocol and ensure all procedures are in place.

Concerning the 2007 Breeders' Cup, Blatz-Murff said two equine ambulances will be available at Monmouth Park. One will be placed at the quarter-mile chute and the other will be located at the six--furlong chute except during the Sprint, when it will be relocated due to the proximity of the starting gate.

"Because New Jersey is a new site, fortunately, their veterinarian was there on site last year and was certainly able to witness what went on," said Blatz-Murff. "It is just going to be a matter of trying to bring them up to speed with their racing commission and the other security personnel."

Saylor said communication and response time to injured horses on the racetrack are something he feels needs to be improved. "Taking care of the horses is the most important thing," he said. "We need some kind of system in place where this type of stuff falls under the supervision of one authority. What happened on Breeders' Cup day should never happen again on any kind of day."

About the Author

Leslie Deckard

Leslie Deckard is a former staff writer for The Blood-Horse magazine.

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