Praise for NZ harness racing over attention to horse welfare

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Study identifies robust veterinary reporting at race meetings, usually as part of regular screening rather than race-track incidents.
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Harness racing in New Zealand is meeting its duty of care to the Standardbred horses that compete on the nation’s tracks, the authors of a just-published study have concluded.

Stewards were praised for their robust level of reporting and attention to horse welfare, which included regularly seeking veterinary reports on horses whose track performance fell below expectations.

The findings, reported in the journal Animals, were based on race-level reporting during the 2015/16 and 2016/17 seasons.

Within racing, most jurisdictions use a process of stipendiary steward reporting and veterinary reports. These reports are routinely collected during race meetings and are published as part of the transparency of racing integrity.

They are identified as either a non-incident or an incident report. Non-incident reports occur when there has been no identifiable “event” during a race, and form part of routine screening of horses as part of the integrity process.

Screening requests often focus on a horse or horses that may not have performed up to expectations, or if a horse’s health is questioned.

In contrast, an incident report is the result of an “event” before or during a race (such as a horse collision, stumble, fall, or the horse breaks its stride) that requires a horse to be examined.

Both reports involve an assessment from the designated veterinarian on duty for the race meeting.

Michaela Gibson and her fellow researchers at Massey University set out to characterise reporting during the two seasons. The study team looked at the specific reasons for the race-day veterinarian undertaking the examinations, and the outcomes.

In all, 1001 records were included in the study, of which 131 covered incidents, while 870 were non-incident reports. The most common reason for stewards requesting an incident report was a fall.

The main reason for horse examinations after a race was poor performance, usually requested by stewards if a horse’s race effort was lower than its previous outing, or lower than expected as reflected by the betting odds.

There were only nine fractures reported in the stipendiary stewards’ reports for both seasons, representing a rate of 0.16 per 1000 starts. In New Zealand Thoroughbred racing, the fracture rate is 0.48 per 1000 starts.

The low incidence of significant injuries such as fractures reflected the lower risk of injury in harness racing compared to Thoroughbred racing, the study team said.

Harness races with more than eight participants were 1.9 times more likely to have an incident than races with eight or fewer participants, they found.

The researchers said their findings highlight the role of stewards in maintaining high standards of animal welfare.

The level of steward reporting indicates that the information gathered is representative of the New Zealand harness racing industry and provides robust metrics of its performance, they said.

“The primary issues identified with the social license to operate with horse racing appear to focus on the concept of injury and risk of injury to the equine participants.

“The low incidence of significant clinical findings from this high level of reporting and screening indicates that harness racing in New Zealand is meeting its duty of care to the horses racing in it and the primary issues associated with the social license to operate with horse racing.”

The high level of reporting reflects the role stewards have in maintaining racing integrity, they said.

The researchers comprised Gibson, Fernando Roca Fraga, Charlotte Bolwell, Erica Gee and Chris Rogers, all with Massey University.

Gibson, M.J.; Roca Fraga, F.J.; Bolwell, C.F.; Gee, E.K.; Rogers, C.W. Race-Level Reporting of Incidents during Two Seasons (2015/16 to 2016/17) of Harness Racing in New Zealand. Animals 2022, 12, 433. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani12040433

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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