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A day at the races
Belmont Stakes veterinarian stands watch on 2,000 Thoroughbreds, nervous trainers and relentless security check points;but her instinct and experience guide recommendations


Kunz has a set routine, too, before and after each race, though a slight change was made for Belmont Stakes Day. Veterinary escorts walk with the horses to make sure they are not startled or interfered with by the gaggle of photographers trying to capture a potentially lucrative image of the possible winner.

Leveling the field

In addition to physical exams and horse monitoring on the track, urine and blood are taken selectively to check for illegal substances. The racing stewards also select certain races for blood gas testing. For this purpose, blood samples are taken approximately one hour prior to the race and analyzed for elevated CO2 levels, which correspond to excessive alkalinizing agents.

The New York State Racing and Wagering Board requests post-race blood and urine tests for illegal substances, and they request blood gas analysis for randomly selected horses and races as well.

"The most efficient blood gas analysis we've found is pre-race," Kunz says. "That is because after exercise, the horse blows off CO2, and it takes more than an hour for a Thoroughbred's blood to return to baseline for accurate assessment. It is difficult to keep them in the detention barn for that length of time, especially since they've already cooled out. We are still gathering information as to the benefit of post-race blood gas testing. Theoretically, testing close to race time would display the highest level if an alkalinizing agent was given, because the rationale is to raise CO2/bicarbonate levels to their highest before they exercise to combat lactic acidosis, which in turn would combat fatigue."

Dr. Fisher's position in Kentucky is parallel to Dr. Kunz's for NYRA. She too was at Belmont Park for Belmont Stakes Day as an AAEP On-Call veterinarian.

"All the horses are basically tested and treated the same. On Derby Day, we previously used to have the horses come to a holding barn 45 minutes prior to post, and we drew blood samples. Since this year there were 20 horses in the race, we did pre-race sampling at their own barn," Fisher explains. "Other than that, the horses are tested and treated like any other race on any other day, though for the Kentucky Derby post-race, we tested a few extra horses."

Scratch to race another day

On top of race-day responsibilities, Kunz often must determine whether an animal should bow out of a race.

If a horse is deemed unfit to race, the trainer must prove to the veterinary staff that the horse has recovered from whatever issues he had before he can race again. Often it entails a timed workout (sometimes with jockey instead of an exercise rider), to the veterinarian's satisfaction.

"These horses post-injury are monitored quite closely to ensure their good health before returning to run," Kunz says. "We'll follow-up on their diagnostics, whether it be X-rays, ultrasound, surgery etc, and their return to good health prior to their running again. We involve ourselves with these cases as if they were our own patients, and communicate with the trainer and their veterinarian. Once we feel comfortable that they've recovered, we release them to enter again."

A horse can be scratched if it becomes agitated, stumbles or falls within the paddock or gets caught in the starting gate. The veterinarian uses discretion to determine if the horse is OK to run. The veterinarian and the racing stewards have a dual hand in making those determinations. The veterinarian determines soundness and extent of an injury, but the racing stewards might scratch a horse if it gets loose and has already run too fast and too far to race that day.

"A horse will be scratched 99 percent of the time not because of a serious injury, Kunz says. Sometimes, a simple misstep could signal it not be in the horse's best interest to run that day.


Source: DVM360 MAGAZINE,
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