Horses compete in the 2013 Kentucky Derby

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. 

Preparations for the Derby

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. 

Common Racing Injuries and Obstacles

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.

The uniqueness of the racetrack setting also means the veterinarians face some obstacles. Dr. Scollay says these are mainly logistical. For example, communication between vets around the track can be complicated when the number of people present on site overloads cellphone systems. Her team uses radios but sometimes needs to reach people — trainers, private attending veteriarians, owners — who are not on the radio network. Visibility along the track can also be difficult with so many people infield. As a result, veterinarians are staged at multiple locations.

Preventing and Treating Injuries

“The intense scrutiny of these horses in the week preceding the race has proved very helpful in establishing an accurate understanding of each horse’s overall health, and in particular its musculoskeletal health,” Dr. Scollay says.

With this knowledge, the vet team tries to prevent any injuries and issues. Horses are monitored while on the track, and if there is a reason for concern after the race, vets check on the horse. Before the race, track veterinarians are able to disqualify any horse that is ill or that they think has been injured. If there is an injury during the race, vets can reach horses in 15 to 30 seconds. According to Dr. Scollay, when vets get to a horse, they assess its condition and then dispense any needed emergency medication such as sedatives, analgesics or quick-acting corticosteroids.

“We carry a range of splints that can be applied to stabilize a fracture if necessary. We’ll load the horse into the equine ambulance for transportation back to its barn for further diagnostics and treatment. A KHRC veterinarian remains with the horse until the private attending veterinarian arrives,” Dr. Scollay says.

Enhanced injury assessment is available thanks to the presence of the attending board-certified surgeon and board-certified anesthesiologist, who can induce general anesthesia if necessary to safely transport an injured horse. Anesthetized horses can be intubated and safely moved into the equine ambulance on a special mat.

“The more effective we are in accurately assessing and addressing a horse’s condition immediately post-injury, the better the prognosis is for the horse,” Dr. Scollay says.

Racing is an injury-prone sport, but the dedicated veterinary team on site at Churchill Downs on Derby Day does everything it can to make sure these horses compete as safely as possible.

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