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Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Life and death decisions in the sport of kings

X-ray: A vet's life
An old article, originally published in the Yorkshire Post by Chris Bond, detailing a behind-the-scenes perspective of an on-course vet at York. A sobering thought in many respects but a part of racing that we should all acknowledge.  

We all love a day at the races, but what is it like for the racecourse vets? Chris Bond found out when he visited York for his latest report into working lives.

For most of us, a day at the races means dressing up, sipping a glass or two of champagne and perhaps having a little flutter.

Racing is the sport of kings, so it's nice to live like one, albeit only for an afternoon.

But not everyone gets to enjoy the niceties of the occasion, and for the racecourse vets, big events like the St Leger are just another day at the office.

They are required to scrutinise each horse that competes and if an accident happens, their prompt judgment can make the difference between life and death.

Mark Collins has been vet on duty at York Racecourse for the past 26 years and senior vet for the last 18 years. His time is divided between the nearby Minster Equine Veterinary Clinic, where he works, and the racecourse.

On most race days at York there are two vets on the course and three for the busier meeting, such as the Ebor and this year's St Leger.

Unlike the veterinary officer who deals with regulatory matters, Mark's team are there to deal with any ailments or injuries that the horses sustain.

Mark, 50, says serious injuries on flat racecourses like York are relatively rare, but do happen.

"Thankfully, injuries on a flat course are relatively infrequent, although they can be quite dramatic when they do occur because the horses tend to be going faster," he says.

"We get quite a few minor cuts and abrasions to deal with where horses have been caught by another horse or caught by one of their own legs in the melee of the race.

"Some suffer muscle damage following the race or go lame and others may suffer from what we call exertional hyperthermia, where they overheat following a race and become uncoordinated."

Fractures are the worst injuries as they can mean a horse may have to be put down, a decision a vet never takes lightly. If a horse has to be humanely destroyed, it is done screened from view away from the glare of onlookers.

"Wherever possible, we load injured horses into the horse ambulance, sometimes after applying a leg splint and get them off the course where we can evaluate them in a calmer environment.

"One of the worst injuries I remember during my career as a racecourse vet was early on in my career when Willie Carson was very badly injured at the bottom of the straight on a horse called Silken Knot that broke both its forelegs. We had no option but to destroy the horse on the spot.

"If the decision is made to destroy a horse at York, we tend to use lethal injection, rather than shooting them and make sure that the operation is screened from public view – we don't want people going away with the memory of a horse being shot.

"We used to use what was called a knacker wagon to remove dead horses from the course, but now we use a trailer indistinguishable from a normal horse trailer which makes the whole procedure more aesthetic to the racing public."

At a festival meeting in Cheltenham earlier this year, nine horses were killed, followed by two more that died from injuries sustained there. Although this was a jump-racing event, the deaths caused controversy and prompted some people to ask why limb fractures in racehorses were so often fatal.

The number of deaths – the highest in a race meeting for 10 years – inevitably attracted reams of publicity with animal welfare campaigners calling both for high risk races to be banned and the organisers' resignation. Groups cited further statistics saying 370 horses die on British racecourses each year and words like "inhumane" and "barbaric" were bandied around.

However, for many inside the industry, while the deaths cast something of a dark shadow over the Cheltenham Festival, they urged for calm and behind the screaming headlines tried to make their own case heard.

"They are powerful, highly trained athletes attaining speeds of 40-50mph where half a ton of horse flesh can be putting all its weight on a particular limb at one point in time," says Mark. "When forces are unevenly distributed, this can lead to stress fractures and strained tendons.

"Some fractures prove fatal but many can be repaired, we had one at the Ebor meeting that has been repaired. Longitudinal fractures of the lower limb can often be screwed together but those higher up the limb or involving multiple fracture planes are less likely to be repaired.'

"It all depends on the nature of the injury. There have been great advances in orthopaedic surgery in the horse over the last 30 years and research is ongoing to reduce the incidence of racecourse injuries."

Mark has been working with racehorses ever since graduating with honours in Veterinary Science at the University of Liverpool and is a past-president of the British Equine Veterinary Association and former chairman of the Association of Racecourse Veterinary Surgeons.

To become a racecourse vet you should be qualified at least five years and spend most of your time attending horses.

Mark, who breeds racehorses himself and had a winner at York in 1993 with In Like Flynn, admits the racecourse vet fraternity used to be seen as a bit of a "social club" which is no longer the case. The standard of care on the racecourse is increasing all the time whether it is to do with course safety, standards of veterinary care and facilities or anti-doping procedures.

"We used to have wooden railings with concrete pillars which have been replaced with plastic post and rails which are much safer if a horse crashes into them at speed," he says. "The standards required for veterinary treatment rooms have also improved over the years.

"Cruelty on the racecourse will not be tolerated. The use of the whip is very closely monitored. Any abuse of the whip is punished and the jockey is banned. People question the welfare of animals much more nowadays, but the veterinary profession has always had this at heart."