Leading Equine Vets Support The Horse Comes First

As Aintree’s biggest occasion of the year, featuring the world’s greatest steeplechase, the Crabbie’s Grand National, gets closer, public attention on equine welfare is bound to reach a peak, but for racing professionals the topic is always at the top of the agenda, thanks to The Horse Comes First campaign.                                         
Launched in December 2013 and supported by the British Horseracing Authority, The Horse Comes First is an industry-wide initiative to promote the sport’s commitment to the welfare of horses throughout and after their racing careers. 
                          
The most visible impact of horse care is on the racecourse, which is why the Racecourse Association, its individual members and the Association of Racecourse Veterinary Surgeons has wholeheartedly backed the campaign.

ARVS chairman Mark Georgetti explains: “The Horse Comes First was introduced after two years of bad publicity at the Grand National, and although it would require extensive surveys to establish whether public opinion has been influenced for the better, from my perspective, working on the racecourse and talking to racecourse vets, it has definitely made a difference. 

“Instead of reacting all the time to negative stories in the media, there is a prevailing feeling of pride in the sport of horseracing and a positive attitude to the ways that horses are looked after.

“We now have a number of people, including jockeys, trainers and stable staff, who are prepared to be public advocates for racing, and we have racecourse vets who are happy to go for media training, so that they can properly explain procedures.

Georgetti, who is based at the Three Counties Equine Hospital in Tewkesbury and provides veterinary cover at Ludlow and Worcester, believes the switch of emphasis has been of enormous benefit in informing public opinion. 

“Improvements in the treatment of injuries to racehorses has improved over decades, especially since the ARVS was founded in 1993, and not just in the last couple of years,” he says.

“The ARVS, whose primary aim is to promote and safeguard the safety and welfare of horses at race meetings, is constantly trying to improve things by providing a forum for discussion. We promote the exchange of ideas on the management of injury and disease on racecourses, and organise annual casualty management seminars.

“The outcome is that horses get a high level of care, and there is also very good communication between the racecourse vet and the home vet.

“Added to that has been the positive approach by racecourses themselves to improving facilities for the horses, whether it’s in the design of hurdles and fences or the quality of ground conditions."

Improvements in safety measures on Britain’s racecourses have helped to reduce fatalities by a third in the last 20 years, while advances in veterinary science has been boosted by the investment of more than £27 million in research and education projects since 2000.

Senior racecourse vet Simon Knapp, clinical director at Scott Dunn’s Equine Clinic in Wokingham, who works at Ascot, Epsom, Kempton and Sandown, supports the move to make this information more widely available to the general public.

“People tend to home in on injury statistics and make sweeping generalisatons,” he says, “but we have to remember we are dealing with prime athletes operating at the extreme of performance. 

“In general racing has tended to be reactive about welfare in the past, but now, through The Horse Comes First, it has got on the front foot with a much more pro-active approach that doesn’t happen only when the Grand National comes around.”  

Knapp first-hand knowledge of the advances in welfare prompts him to say: “There has been a major breakthrough in veterinary care on racecourses in recent years through the courses themselves, the RCA, the BHA and the vets working together.

“The days when if a horse was injured, it was almost certainly put down are behind us, and a broken leg no longer automatically means the end of a horse’s life, or even its racing career.

“Of course there remains an inherent risk of injury and horses have to be put down if it’s absolutely necessary, but it’s done in a controlled fashion and, where possible, always in consultation with connections, because decisions made on a racecourse must be right, not rapid.

“Generally, though, the emphasis now is to get the injured horse off the course on a special ambulance so that it can be properly assessed, x-rayed, supported and transported to a referral unit. 

“One of the best examples of how things have changed was Nicky Henderson’s chaser Petit Robin, who fractured his shoulder at Ascot, came back 14 months later and raced for another two seasons, during which he won two races and was placed several times.

“He would probably have been put down 20 years ago, but nowadays we have good veterinary units on racecourses, high quality cover and vets who are geared to treat acute injuries.”

On The Horse Comes First campaign, Knapp says: “It is helping to get across the message that racehorses are well treated at home, fitter and healthier, and if they are injured on a racecourse, they are in the best place to receive immediate support. The racecourse veterinary unit is not a hospital but it does provide the best appropriate support before a horse can be transported to a specialist unit.”

As to the future of the campaign, which is supported by the British Horseracing Authority, Racecourse Association, Racehorse Owners Association, Professional Jockeys Association, National Trainers Federation, National Association of Stable Staff, Jockey Club and Arena Racing Company, Mark Georgetti has no doubts.

“Funding was guaranteed for a certain length of time,” he says.

“It’s been a most worthwhile initiative, and for the sake of the sport I sincerely hope it continues.”