New pre-race protocols aim to improve safety in Australia’s greatest horse race

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Anthony Van Dyck pictured before the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Turf at Churchill Downs in Kentucky. The 2019 Epsom Derby winner sustained a fatal injury in the 2020 Melbourne Cup. ©Jlvsclrk, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Wide-ranging safety measures aimed at reducing horse deaths in Victoria’s Spring Racing Carnival, including Australia’s greatest race, the Melbourne Cup race, have been announced by racing authorities.

The new safety measures, agreed by Racing Victoria and the Victoria Racing Club, follow a review into the rate of injuries sustained by international horses during the carnival over the past decade, with a primary focus on the Cup race.

There have been five fatal limb injuries in the Melbourne Cup over the last 40 years, of which four have been in the past eight years. Each was internationally trained visitors.

The horses were Anthony Van Dyck (2020, Ireland), The Cliffsofmoher (2018, Ireland), Red Cadeaux (2015, UK), Verema (2013, France) and Three Crowns (1998, Singapore). Red Cadeaux was euthanised two weeks after the race because of irreversible complications which arose with his injured foreleg.

In addition, two horses who contested the 2014 Melbourne Cup died on the day in unique circumstances. Admire Rakti (Japan) suffered a rare sudden death syndrome, while Araldo (a Victorian-trained import) was euthanised after sustaining a limb injury while leaving the track when spooked by a flag waved by a spectator.

The board of Racing Victoria has endorsed 41 recommendations, which centre on enhanced veterinary oversight and screening of international horses seeking to compete in the carnival, and of all horses – local and international – in the Cup race.

The recommendations include the retention of the Werribee International Horse Centre as Victoria’s quarantine centre, with enhancements to aid horse welfare; a cap on the number of horses that enter the facility; and education for international trainers, owners and private veterinarians to ensure clarity around the changes and Racing Victoria’s expectations.

Red Cadeaux
Red Cadeaux

The review was led by Racing Victoria’s executive general manager of integrity services, Jamie Stier, and included members of the authority’s veterinary, equine welfare and racing teams, along with independent representatives in Victoria Racing Club director and Godolphin Australia Managing Director Vin Cox, champion trainer Chris Waller, and internationally renowned regulatory veterinarian Dr David Sykes.

The review group consulted with more than 65 local and international stakeholders, including veterinarians, trainers, jockeys, owners, track managers and racing clubs with the primary goal of developing recommendations to enhance the safety and welfare of international horses in Victoria for the carnival and all horses in the Cup.

Four key areas were explored: The higher rate of injuries among visiting and imported horses over the past decade; pre and post-travel veterinary and diagnostic requirements; training facilities both internationally and upon arrival in Melbourne; and the conditions of the Melbourne Cup.

The review group also considered a fatality report compiled by Racing Victoria following the injury and subsequent euthanasia of Anthony Van Dyck in the 2020 Cup.

The report details that, following his arrival in Australia, Anthony Van Dyck’s private veterinarian diagnosed proximal suspensory desmitis (PSD) in all four limbs, a condition common in athletic horses and considered low risk for serious injury.

The diagnostic procedures used by the stable’s private veterinarian included nerve blocks, a highly common practice used by veterinarians to temporarily desensitise localised areas when examining the soundness of equine athletes.

The diagnosis of PSD was consistent with the findings of Anthony Van Dyck’s post mortem and is considered unrelated to the fatal fractures sustained by the horse in the Melbourne Cup. Having reasonably accepted the diagnosis of PSD and in the absence of other clinical signs, further diagnostic examination was not sought by the stable or Racing Victoria.

The fatality report found that, whilst current veterinary processes were followed, had mandatory precautionary diagnostic imaging been in place, it may have identified the potential for Anthony Van Dyck to incur a more serious racing injury.

The review group ultimately determined that there are multiple contributing factors to injuries in horses, particularly among international horses travelling to Australia, and thus a combination of recommendations, each contributing to reduce the risk of injury, was required.

The headline initiatives being implemented with the aim of reducing injuries among international horses during the Spring Racing Carnival and among all horses competing in the Melbourne Cup are as follows:

Pre-Travel

  • An enhanced pre-travel veterinary examination process will ensure greater scrutiny of horses who are intended to travel to Australia, with additional compulsory diagnostic imaging and examinations to be conducted;
  • All international horses entering the Werribee facility must undergo full-body scintigraphy and CT/MRI of their distal limbs at the expense of their connections two to six weeks before entering pre-export quarantine;
  • Horses that have had a previous major fracture or orthopaedic surgery will be excluded from travelling and entering Werribee regardless of their current health and soundness; and
  • A veterinarian appointed by Racing Victoria will conduct a pre-travel veterinary examination in pre-export quarantine within a week of travelling to Australia to ensure the ongoing suitability of horses to travel.

After arrival in Australia

  • All international horses that arrive at Werribee must also undergo a CT scan of their distal limbs before each start in Victoria during the Spring Racing Carnival before being permitted to compete, with the costs to be met by Racing Victoria;
  • Veterinary staff appointed by Racing Victoria will provide and/or oversee veterinary clinical services for international horses at Werribee instead of stables appointing their own private veterinarians; and
  • Enhanced oversight will include new trackwork monitoring processes and systems along with the world-first introduction of cortisol analysis to monitor stress levels in international horses based at the centre.

The Werribee centre

  • The centre will be retained as the industry’s quarantine facility and international training centre with further enhancements to be made to the two training tracks and veterinary examination facilities;
  • The depth of the profile of the sand-fibre track will be increased and track preparation modified to increase the depth and frequency of harrowing, while the crossing will be upgraded on the turf track;
  • The number of international horses permitted to enter the WIHC for the Spring Racing Carnival will be capped at 24 – down from an uncapped peak of 42 in 2018; and
  • Imported international horses (“one-way tickets”), whilst in training, will be required to remain at the WIHC until at least the conclusion of Melbourne Cup week before being permitted to transfer to different training facilities.

Melbourne Cup

  • In what is believed to be a world-first initiative, all horses – international and local – must undergo a CT scan of their distal limbs before being permitted to compete in the Melbourne Cup, with the costs to be met by Racing Victoria;
  • That diagnostic imaging must be performed after the date of the Caulfield Cup and before Melbourne Cup final acceptances, with local horses permitted to start between their imaging and the Melbourne Cup;
  • These scans will be reviewed by a panel of three Racing Victoria-appointed international experts in equine surgery and veterinary diagnostic imaging to determine the horse’s suitability to race;
  • International horses that travel to Australia via the Werribee centre will be permitted to have a maximum of one start only in Australia before contesting the Melbourne Cup; and
  • An additional pre-race veterinary inspection of all starters will be conducted by a panel of RV veterinarians on the day before the Melbourne Cup, in addition to that already conducted on the Thursday/Friday prior to the race.

There were 44 recommendations made to the board of Racing Victoria for its consideration, 41 of which were endorsed.

In arriving at that decision, the board determined that the enhanced veterinary procedures and screening measures are the best combination of changes to reduce the risk of injury to horses. As a result, the following three recommendations were not endorsed:

  • A change in the minimum targeted track rating for the Melbourne Cup to Good 4 from no firmer than Good 3 on the basis that the industry’s track surface preparation guidelines were updated only in August 2019 to provide more give in the ground in the interests of horse welfare. It was further noted that the guidelines must be applied consistently to all races for the integrity of the sport (Recommendation 27);
  • A reduction in the Melbourne Cup field size from 24 to 20 starters on the basis that there was limited data to support the impact of this and that none of the fatalities in the race have been caused by interference. It was further noted that there is no evidence that the horses most at risk of injury were the last four horses included in the field through the order of entry (Recommendation 28); and
  • An increase in the minimum handicap rating for horses to enter the WIHC from 100 to 110 on the basis that there is no clear evidence to suggest that horses rated below 110 carry any greater risk and that the capping of the number of horses permitted to enter WIHC achieves the same objective of a reduction in international horses (Recommendation 36).

To facilitate implementation of the plan, this year, nominations for the 2021 Melbourne Cup and 2021 Caulfield Cup will be brought forward to August 3 to allow sufficient time for extensive veterinary examinations of international entries.

The final race conditions of the 2021 Melbourne Cup will be published in June.

Racing Victoria chairman Brian Kruger said his organisation, and the broader racing industry, has a duty to provide for the safety and welfare of every horse in every race.

“The saddening events of last spring showed us that more needed to be done to help reduce serious racing injuries, particularly among international horses targeting our Spring Racing Carnival.

“We worked closely with the Victoria Racing Club in commissioning a comprehensive review into the injury rate among international horses participating in the Spring Racing Carnival over the past decade, as well as horses competing in the Melbourne Cup,” Kruger said.

“I want to commend the review working group for their efforts and thank all those stakeholders, locally and internationally, who participated in the review and helped shape the final recommendations tabled with the Racing Victoria and Victoria Racing Club boards.

“The review ultimately found that injuries in international horses, including in the Melbourne Cup, result from a variety of factors and that a combination of changes is required to reduce the risk of injury rather than one single initiative.”

He described the measures announced as a new global safety benchmark for horses competing in the carnival, with a primary goal of delivering a safer Melbourne Cup.

“There will be a reduction in the number of international horses that travel to Melbourne with unprecedented veterinary screening and oversight to be delivered, building upon a series of enhancements made in 2019.

“There will be improvements to the Werribee International Horse Centre to aid horse welfare and veterinary screening, whilst all horses, international and local, will need to pass rigorous examinations to take their place in the Melbourne Cup.

“We know some of these initiatives will be onerous on connections, but we make no apology for making the safety of horses our priority. Our sole focus is on ensuring that horses and riders compete safely, and we are committed to delivering these important enhancements in 2021 and beyond.”

Victoria Racing Club chairman Neil Wilson said the club, as custodians of Flemington Racecourse, understands its obligation and the importance of continuing to lift the benchmark in terms of protecting not only horses and jockeys, but the wider sport of racing.

“These initiatives will set a new global standard for horse and jockey safety with the introduction of some of the world’s most stringent pre-travel and pre-race veterinary screening processes.

“This review is an important milestone in the history of the Melbourne Cup, the Spring Racing Carnival, and indeed for the broader national and global racing community,” Wilson said.

“We have said consistently that we want to see Australia’s greatest race become its safest. While today’s announcement will see new requirements for this year’s Melbourne Cup, we are committed to a continuous review and improvement approach.

“Advances in information, technology, science and research will be considered by the industry on an ongoing basis to ensure we are taking advantage of every opportunity to further improve the safety of our sport.”

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