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On Saturday, the 140th Kentucky Derby will take place at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. Every year, millions of people tune in to watch this famous Thoroughbred horse race, and though this first part of the prestigious Triple Crown is only two minutes long, a lot can happen in that time to the four-legged athletes. Fortunately, these racehorses have a team of veterinarians standing by should they require medical attention.
According to Dr. Mary Scollay, equine medical director for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC), there are six full-time veterinarians employed by the commission year-round and an additional six part-time KHRC veterinarians in place for the Kentucky Derby. These part-time vets include a board-certified equine surgeon and board-certified anesthesiologist. “All these veterinarians have training specific to their duties as racing regulatory veterinarians,” Dr. Scollay says.
In addition, three to four veterinary interns from the Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington work at the race under the direction of KHRC veterinarians. Dr. Scollay says they provide support in monitoring horses during the race and immediately after.
The team starts preparing for the next year’s race the day after the current year's Derby takes place. “Preparations really kick into high gear around the first of March, but as early as November we are ticking off tasks on a 12-page checklist,” Dr. Scollay says.
In the weeks leading up to the Derby, horses are subjected to regular drug testing; they get several exams the week before the race. Veterinarians also observe them during their daily exercise on the track. “This allows us to develop a familiarity with the horses and identify any questions to be asked or issues to be addressed,” Dr. Scollay says.
She says the KHRC makes sure all horses receive the same level of scrutiny. Regulatory veterinarians in other jurisdictions assist the KHRC by collecting blood samples on their behalf on Derby hopefuls who may not yet be stabled at Churchill Downs.
The Derby is called the most exciting two minutes in sports for good reason: The 20 or so horses in the race are among the sport's top athletes, and their high-speed performances push the limits of equine anatomy and conditioning. In such an explosive atmosphere, race-day injuries can run the gamut from minor abrasions to life-threatening fractures, Dr. Scollay says.
“Each case is unique, and the veterinarians on site respond to the circumstances they encounter. As the racetrack isn’t the same as a hospital setting, the veterinarians must be acutely aware of the environment surrounding the patient to ensure that the horse is safely restrained and protected from further injury while the primary condition is being addressed,” she says.
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