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Oaklawn, Arkansas Groups Embrace Finding Common Ground

In many regions of the country, it is not uncommon to find one racing group at odds with another. A horseman’s organization might be in an adversarial relationship with a state or federal regulator, or friction may exist between a track and another one of these entities.

These rifts do not appear to occur with the same frequency in Arkansas. According to leadership there, more often than not, common ground seems to be found, even when embarking on sensitive change in areas such as equine safety. 

“We all get along in the sandbox,” said Louis Cella, president of Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark. 

“Everybody realizes basically we got a three-legged stool,” added Alex Lieblong, chair of the Arkansas State Racing Commission. “It’s got to be good for Oaklawn; it’s gotta be good for the horses; and it’s got to be good for the owners. If you have (only) two of those three, the stool is not gonna work.”

According to Cella and Lieblong, the commission often defaults to the track and horsemen working together to reach a goal. 

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“If the horsemen in Oaklawn get along and agree to it, we can kind of go ahead,” said Lieblong, who, as a horse owner, is one of numerous state commissioners involved in Thoroughbred racing. “We make sure it’s not egregious one way or the other or it’s a mistake somewhere or another. Why get involved? What I’m saying is when you try to get the horseman and the track together, that’s not always an easy thing, just by its very nature.”

Arkansas HBPA, Oaklawn Team Up With Initiative

In one example of partnership, Oaklawn and the Arkansas Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association announced a new house rule in late January requiring that horses in need of repeat intra-articular corticosteroid injections to the fetlock joint within 60 days would require the attending veterinarian to perform a radiograph of that fetlock joint. As part of the initiative, they worked with Kentucky’s renowned Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital to develop consistent protocols for taking these radiographs.

To assist in the costs of the required digital imaging, the Arkansas HBPA and Oaklawn announced they would pay horsemen up to $250 for each required set of radiographs, also known as x-rays.

“A lot of HBPAs won’t go for that, or franchises can’t go for that without legislative or rule authority, or they just don’t want to afford to do it,” Cella said.

Louis A. Cella
Photo: Courtesy Oaklawn Park

Louis A. Cella

But Arkansas, with a full casino at Oaklawn and live racing there that packs fans into the grandstand, can do so.

Though the new regulation only affects a small number of horses, Arkansas HBPA president Bill Walmsley sees potential short- and long-term benefits to the program to “give additional information in the industry for everybody to look at and maybe make more intelligent decisions along the way.”

Arkansas is not alone in aggressively pursuing equine safety measures to precede or accompany Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority regulations. Before HISA’s implementation, California adopted numerous equine health protocols, some aimed at the fetlock joint, which contributes to a sizable portion of equine injuries. 

Addressing Intra-Articular Injections

The new house rule involving multiple injections to the fetlock joint is not the only equine safety measure tried this winter and spring in Arkansas. In December, before the meet began, the track, in conjunction with HISA, launched a new pilot program under which a designated barn would be available on a voluntary basis for veterinarians to administer intra-articular corticosteroid injections at the racetrack. All injections would be reported to the integrity team at Oaklawn.

Intra-articular joint injections—whether performed by a doctor to humans or by a veterinarian to horses—go into an affected or injured joint to decrease inflammation and ease discomfort. The most common areas and joints injected on an affected horse are the hocks, stifles, knees, fetlocks, and pastern and coffin joints. 

Supporters of joint injections say hyaluronic acid treatments can thin fluid and create cushion in the joint. But when a horse is in need of repeat injections in a short period of time, rest and/or surgery may be in the horse’s best interest. Regular use of corticosteroids, which are anti-inflammatories, can be abused if they are used to cover up a physical problem that continues to damage the joint.

“I want what’s best for the horse,” said Oaklawn-based trainer Ron Moquett, a member of the HISA’s Horsemen’s Advisory Group and an Arkansas HBPA board member. “If something’s abused, I agree with anybody, it’s not what’s best for the horse.”

Ron Moquett trainer for Fleeterthan with Joel Rosario wins Race 3. <br>
Mornings at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Md. May 17, 2019 in Baltimore,  Md.
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt

Ron Moquett

Horsemen still had the option of having injections take place as usual at their regular barns, a practice many horsemen favor, Walmsley said. 

“Our feeling was, and most of my people—we don’t mind having an integrity officer, but we want that filly or that mare or that gelding, we want him to get his shot in his stall in familiar circumstances, where we know that we’re not gonna be exposed potentially to some outside germs or some contamination that might create problems for him,” he said.

Reflecting further on concerns, HISA CEO Lisa Lazarus said: “Some of the vets find it difficult because they may have to run between more locations if they have some horsemen who don’t want to go to that barn. There have also been some questions about a horse if it has received some form of mild anesthetic; does that make it more difficult to move them afterwards?”

But she added that, for the most part, issues were “proven not to be problematic at Oaklawn. Oaklawn is a convenient place to do this.”

Cella Wants Arkansas Rules to Guide HISA

Cella said that from the time the federal government authorized HISA—its constitutionality is still being challenged in courts by divisions of the HBPA and other groups—he told Arkansas participants that, like it or not, they should accept a degree of inevitability with it.

“So I told our guys and our horsemen and our racing commission…I’m going to embrace HISA on day one, and I’m going to push the envelope as much as we can at Oaklawn because I want everyone else to wake up saying Arkansas rules are gonna guide this,” Cella said.

The designated injection barn aimed to provide “a clinical environment” for such procedures and increased transparency, Lazarus said.

“The vast majority of horsemen are honest, but it’s very difficult for HISA or any regulator to really determine whether or not vets and the horsemen are always being truthful about which joint is being injected, for example,” she said.

To encourage participation, Oaklawn initially compensated participants $250 for the first 100 injections taking place there. That money has since run out, and horsemen have reverted to using their barns. However, injections are still reported to Oaklawn’s integrity team and kept in records.

“So no longer does the vet just go in and mysteriously give a shot to a horse,” Cella said. “Now, our integrity team has to see it. We take a picture of the vial, we write down what it is, the vet signs off, and then we give a copy to the vet, a copy to the trainer, a copy to the state vet, and we keep a record. So now, no excuses. We know what a horse is being injected with.

“Well, the important part of this is everyone was fine with it, and we didn’t know that until we did this example. So I think the takeaway is the horsemen really do want to do what’s best for the horses so long as it’s practical for them, makes some sense.”

Chris Hartman, one of Oaklawn’s leading trainers, said he “never used their injection barn. I’m not a guy that really does a lot of injections.”

But he shares Moquett’s feelings, saying, “Any safety measure that’s gonna protect horses, I’m for.”

Moquett emphasized the importance of direct horsemen involvement in trials and forming regulations, as opposed to adopting rules based on studies that may not necessarily apply in a racetrack setting.

Lazarus said HISA would consult with Oaklawn and representatives from groups in Arkansas in analyzing the designated injection area concept and whether it could be applied elsewhere.

“If at the end of the day it’s determined to be a success, as I think it will be, we’ll definitely encourage more tracks to do so,” she said. “And if over time, it really becomes something that makes a lot of sense as best practice, then there’s an opportunity for us to consider it as a rule, but we’re not at that point at this stage.”

Track, Groups Working ‘In Unison’

Arkansas is proving to be a testing ground.

“I can tell you that of all the places I go, I feel like we’re all in unison, in harmony here, more than elsewhere,” Moquett said of interactions. “We don’t agree all the time on everything, but there’s an open dialogue with a real desire to get it.”

Lieblong agrees, saying, “It does not have to be the skins vs. the shirts.”

Alex Lieblong, 2023 Fasig-Tipton July  Selected Yearling Sale
Photo: Fasig-Tipton Photos

Alex Lieblong

He acknowledges there will inevitably be some pushback and conflict to change, but as long as that is not excessive, they’re often on the right track.

“When you’re dealing with this big of an area, you’re going to make about half the people mad, and if you’re making more than half the people mad, you’re probably screwing up,” he quipped.

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