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A vet at the races
  1. Nick Bowen

Abstract

Nick Bowen is one of the 13 British Horseracing Authority veterinary officers who help to protect the integrity of a sport they are passionate about

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IN common with some other equine practitioners, I found that after 30 years in practice my client base had changed from largely professional or semi-professional to amateur, and, in my opinion, had become less satisfying to work for. I was working long hours on call and meeting stiff competition from newly established local practices.

In the paddock at Southwell: Nick Bowen (right) is pictured with racecourse vets Matthew Barlow (left) and John Millar

After I had replied to an advertisement for a position as a veterinary officer with the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), and was offered the post, I had a short period of time (a weekend) to decide whether to sell up or not. I sold my practice and have never had reason to regret my decision. I currently have a 150-day contract, and work about another 25 other non-racing days per year. I have found a number of significant pluses associated with the role:

▪ A defined working day and no out-of-hours commitment;

▪ Working with and getting to know the racecourse vets and BHA veterinary technicians (VTs);

▪ Working with professional trainers and their staff who are (usually) polite, cooperative and treat the officials with respect;

▪ Hands-on contact with some of the equine ‘stars’;

▪ Involvement in some policy decisions and rule changes;

▪ Opportunities to represent the BHA overseas. I spoke to the USA's racing regulatory veterinarians at the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) convention in 2009.

On the minus side, it has to be said that the driving can be tiring (similar mileage to working in practice). Sometimes it is necessary to stay away in hotels, and some of the finishes are late after summer evening meetings (if the last race is at 9.30 pm, I can be away by, say, 10.30 pm, followed by a drive home).

On a racing day, I arrive at the meeting about two-and-a-half hours before the first race. Every horse is identified as it enters the racecourse stables by the VTs and the stable security officers. Passports are checked with respect to identity and vaccinal status. Horses with a recent veterinary history are listed on the daily ‘welfare report’ and are checked over. There is a pre-racing briefing with the stipendiary stewards, at which matters rele-vant to the day's racing are discussed and resolved.

Microchip scanning at the stableyard entrance

Once racing starts, I am in the paddock before each race, and maintain a presence in the racecourse stables assisting the VTs with the day's routine testing. I spend time with the racecourse vets and deal with the regulatory issues as they crop up. My day finishes when the horse selected for testing in the last race has been sampled and has left the sampling unit.

On non-racing days, my main responsibility is the administration of the ‘Poor Mover list’, part of the BHA's Poor Mover and Lame Horse Protocol. This is a register of horses that have gait defects or minor lamenesses, which, after veterinary assessment, are currently considered to be fit to race.

The gait and performance of the listed horses are monitored by our department. Deterioration in gait or form usually results in a formal reappraisal by a veterinary officer and the trainer's veterinary surgeon, which may result in the horse's retirement. I also visit yards (and unlicensed premises) to perform welfare-related assessments of individual horses, inspect equine swimming pools and perform unannounced ‘testing in training’.

Racing facts and figures

Horseracing is the second most popular spectator sport in the UK after football, with around 6 million racegoers a year. There are around 13,000 horses in training. Racing provides about 20,000 full-time jobs directly and supports a further 70,000 full-time jobs indirectly.

The Government raises approximately £325 million in taxation from activity related to horseracing, and at least £10 billion is bet on races each year, with bookmakers generating a gross win in excess of £1 billion in profit from the sport.

The Horserace Betting Levy Board provides the largest support for disease surveillance and veterinary research in the UK, complementing a smaller amount of funding from the government and a variety of equine organisations.

There are currently 13 BHA veterinary officers. Some are full time, but half and three-quarter time contracts also exist. Most are experienced equine veterinary surgeons who have left practice because they had an opportunity to work in a sport they are passionate about. Others have a background in regulation, having held similar positions in other racing jurisdictions before joining the BHA. Part-time clinical work in a practice is allowed, as long as there is no conflict of interest. Within the equine science and welfare department of the BHA, full-time veterinary officers usually have other non-race-day responsibilities, including:

▪ Liaison with the forensic laboratory and organisation of pre- and post-race testing and testing in training;

▪ Statistical review of the injury database and reporting to the director on injury and welfare-related issues;

▪ Day-to-day management of the BHA's ‘sudden death’ postmortem study;

▪ Day-to-day management of the BHA Poor Mover and Lame Horse Protocol (my current role); and

▪ Attending the Breeders' Cup race meeting and being the UK member of the organising vet panel.

Role of the veterinary officer

The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) regulates and controls horseracing in the UK. A BHA veterinary officer (VO) attends every meeting (around 1500 last year) at each of the 60 racecourses and also at selected point-to-points.

The VO is a regulatory veterinary surgeon whose role includes supervision of the identification of all the day's runners by veterinary technicians, the organisation of pre- and post-race dope testing (over 8000 tests were carried out in 2010), and is involved in the administration of the rules of racing with respect to welfare, whip usage, ‘running and riding inquiries’, non-runners, tack, shoeing, etc.

The VO also works with the racecourse veterinary surgeons to ensure that injured horses receive appropriate treatment, and monitors stable hygiene and veterinary facilities at the course. All significant injuries are recorded on the BHA's injury database, thus allowing subsequent statistical analysis, and contributing to research designed to reduce or minimise the risk factors that contribute to racecourse injury.

When I joined I hoped to make a small but hopefully significant contribution to racehorse welfare in the 13 or so years left before retirement. In the first five years I have seen (and voted for) a ban on remounting in a race. (A fallen rider may remount to hack back to the unsaddling area if his horse has been examined by a veterinary surgeon.) We have also become much more adept at dealing with horses that are suffering from ‘heat stress’ (an ongoing project), and we routinely perform pre-race inspections on more horses coming back after long injury breaks than we used to.

In addition, air-cushioned whips have been introduced for all flat races and are now mandatory for all races – flat and over the jumps. And there will be a review of exercise-induced pulmonary haemorrhage this year. There is much work to be done.

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