Life is an extreme sport, complete with everyday risks. When it comes to Thoroughbred racing, the fate of horse and rider are linked in an event, the outcome of which is, by its very nature, in doubt. Win or lose, no one envisions the tragedy that can occur in the blink of an eye that ends the career or the life of horse or rider on the racetrack.

All of us who love the sport of horse racing feel the pain when tragedy strikes. For those who have experienced the shock and disappointment firsthand, it becomes quite personal. The profound grief and sense of loss that owners, trainers, and caregivers experience is very real.

Thoroughbred Racing

Win or lose, no one envisions the tragedy that can occur in the blink of an eye that ends the career or the life of horse or rider on the racetrack.

As an AAEP "On Call" veterinarian, I can tell you that when we watch a race from trackside, all we really care about is getting all the horses home safely. There are times when we don't even know who actually won the race. If eight horses leave the gate, we count them all as they cross the finish line. "All safe" is the call we make on the radio. We look back at the tote board to see the exact order of finish. As the On Call veterinarian for the Pimlico Special and Black-Eyed Susan, held two weeks after Eight Belles' injury, I found myself watching the horses gallop out well past the 7/8 pole before making that call.

The general public shares this same sense of shock and loss. The racing industry invites us to participate in the sport, to identify with the horses, and to cheer on our favorites. We enjoy the pageantry, the ceremony, the excitement, and the thrill of victory. When disaster strikes, we feel the agony that diminishes our appreciation of the winning effort, no matter how spectacular the victory. The immediate response to catastrophic injury is shock and disbelief. We come to terms with our loss, but by no means do we accept these losses as a "part of the game."

While we know there will always be risk in racing, it is our responsibility as stewards of the horse to reduce that risk with every tool at our disposal. We need three things to make racing safer:

  • A value system that puts the safety and welfare of the horse first;
  • Evidence-based information; and
  • The courage and determination to affect real change. Some changes can happen quickly (eliminate toe grabs), while others (complete research on racing surfaces and establish uniform medication guidelines) will take more time.
While efforts to ensure the safety of racehorses have been ongoing for many decades, the attention focused toward Barbaro's injury and his struggle for survival set the stage for the genuine "grass-roots" support among horsemen and industry leaders to make changes in the wake of Eight Belles' tragic injury in the Kentucky Derby.

In times of crisis we look for quick answers, and we cry out for leadership. There are calls for a national governing body to take responsibility and legislate compliance. The hard truth is that we are all responsible for these injuries. Every day, decisions are made by all segments of the industry that affect the safety and welfare of the horse. We can't legislate responsibility. We all need to make safety and welfare of the horse our number one priority. The question is not "What is 'the industry' doing to eliminate catastrophic injuries?"; rather ask yourself, "What am I doing to make racing safer for our horses and riders?"

Originally published in the July 2008 issue of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care.


Scott E. Palmer, V.M.D. is the owner and hospital director of the New Jersey Equine Clinic in Clarksburg NJ. He is currently Chairman of the AAEP Racing Committee.