Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) Veterinary Services
At the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO), there is nothing more important than the safety and integrity of the sport, including the health and welfare of the horse. The AGCO continues to be an industry leader in setting the standard for promoting equine health and safety, and holding those who fail to follow regulations accountable for their actions.
Continual assessment and evaluation of the Rules of Racing pertaining to equine drugs and welfare allow us to promote the integrity of the sport and to ensure the utmost protection of the horses, jockeys, and drivers. The AGCO’s passion and dedication to equine health and welfare is evident in the adoption of temperature standards, urging rules, steroid bans, equine incidence reviews in Ontario, improved biosecurity and animal welfare guidelines.
The health and welfare of horses during racing is overseen by both Commission and Official Veterinarians. Commission Veterinarians are employed by the AGCO, while Official Veterinarians work for the racetracks and are supervised by the AGCO. All have specific knowledge of racehorses, have completed years of specialized study and are licensed by both the College of Veterinarians of Ontario and the AGCO.
The AGCO has two full-time Commission Veterinarians who supervise over 20 Official Veterinarians. Training is provided to the Official Veterinarians so as to ensure the industry is provided with a consistently high level of veterinary service. Commission Veterinarians actively participate in a number of international organizations involved with racehorse health and welfare. This enables the AGCO to keep up-to-date on industry trends in other jurisdictions, and utilize best practices to improve the health and safety of horses racing.
In line with current practice in other jurisdictions, veterinarians in private practice who provide regular medical services to racehorses are required to be licensed by the AGCO. These licensed veterinarians must be familiar with all applicable provincial and federal rules and legislation concerning horse racing, including the AGCO’s Rules of Racing, as well as the Canadian Pari-Mutuel Agency (CPMA)’s elimination schedule for therapeutic medications.
According to the Rules of Racing, a trainer is responsible for only entering horses that are fit to race. When a trainer believes that a horse is unfit to race, it is their responsibility to have the horse checked by a licensed veterinarian, and have that veterinarian certify that the horse is unfit to race, presenting such certification to the Commission or Official Veterinarian.
Commission or Official Veterinarians also perform pre-race examinations, which are a crucial activity for the safety of racehorses and drivers/jockeys. These officials are at the track each race day in Ontario and are responsible for completing these inspections. They are unconditional and unbiased advocates for the health and safety of horses and participants and bring to the attention of AGCO Race Officials (Judges and Stewards) any incident or finding that is not in the best interest of racing or of the horse.
Before the race starts, any horse found not to be fit to race will be scratched (prevented from starting) and placed on the Veterinarian’s List. These pre-race examinations are important protocols and compare favourably with others in place in other jurisdictions.
After having examined the horses before racing, the Official or Commission Veterinarians continue their observations when the horses enter the paddock and walking ring (Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse), and at all times they are on the track (i.e. during warmup, qualifying races and races) until after the horses have left the track.
If during or after a race a horse does not finish well, is injured, bleeds from its nostrils or otherwise has medical difficulties, it will be evaluated and may receive emergency treatment if required. It may also be placed on the Veterinarian’s or Bleeders List. These lists allow for the horse to recuperate by providing adequate time off from racing and allowing for further follow up and examination if required.
Research and Data Collection
In order to minimize the risk factors related to horse fatalities, the AGCO reviews industry data and conducts its own in-house research. With a greater understanding of the facts, best practices can be identified, standardized and implemented.
Equine Incidences in Ontario Racing
Established in 2016, the AGCO’s Equine Incidences in Ontario Racing program (EIOR) records various incidences including minor and serious accidents, performance and drug testing data, as well as horse welfare information. This program builds on the Death Registry program started in 2003 to track and examine the causes of death in Ontario racehorses. Currently, racehorses in Ontario that die within 60 days of entering a race, a workout or a qualifying event must be reported to the AGCO and these horses may be sent for a post mortem examination. Information, including images from CT scans from the post mortem examination of horses, is reviewed by the AGCO and is provided back to their owners and veterinarians to help educate the industry and reduce future racing injuries.
This comprehensive analysis of horse deaths in Ontario has been undertaken by the AGCO to identify risks, with the ultimate goal of reducing tragic events. The AGCO continues to refine and improve the EIOR program, through consultation with researchers, private practitioners, Official Veterinarians, pathologists, forensic analytical chemists and epidemiologists from Ontario and other jurisdictions.
In certain instances, academic researchers have been granted access to this AGCO data. Using this data helps researchers identify trends, risks and potential solutions to racehorse health issues and communicate this information to the industry.
Commission Veterinarians sit on Equine Guelph’s research committee. The committee helps rank project proposals from researchers. Completed research has helped illuminate complex racehorse health issues, such as Exercise Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage (EIPH) and arthritis.
Equine Injury Database
The AGCO inputs data and utilizes information in The Jockey Club’s Equine Injury DatabaseTM, an international database of racing injuries that seeks to identify the frequency, types and outcome of racing injuries. Its goal is to generate valid statistics, identify markers for horses at increased risk of injury, and serve as a data source for research directed at improving safety and preventing injuries.
The Equine Injury Database is an internet based system which is in use at most North American thoroughbred and Quarter Horse racetracks. Research generated using this data is targeted at improving safety and reducing equine injuries.
Biosecurity (protocols designed to reduce the risk of transmission of infectious disease) is of paramount concern in the horse industry. Equine Herpes Virus 1 (EHV-1), an infectious agent, can cause severe neurological effects in horses and, due to its contagious nature, disrupt the industry. For the past several years, outbreaks of EHV-1 have become more common at racetracks, farms and even horse shows. The AGCO has provided the industry with assistance when outbreaks of EHV-1 have occurred in Ontario racehorses.
Horse racing presents some unique challenges for controlling infectious disease. In 2017, the AGCO facilitated an agreement between Woodbine Racetrack, veterinarians and horse people on when to isolate neurological horses and horses potentially infected with “Strangles” (a contagious upper respiratory tract infection of horses) in the backstretch. The AGCO has offered to facilitate discussions with other groups and tracks in order to put in place meaningful biosecurity protocols.
The AGCO requires that all racehorses have a negative test for Equine Infectious Anemia (EIA). EIA is a potentially fatal disease for horses. Infected horses may show no clinical signs but act as a reservoir of infection for other horses. By requiring a negative EIA “Coggins” test, disease outbreaks are minimized, promoting the health of horses, and reducing the likelihood of disruption at racetracks.
Canadian Pari-Mutuel Agency (CPMA) Partnership
The AGCO is proud to have a strong, collaborative relationship with the CPMA, which regulates drug control via the collection of official samples from horses racing in Canada. The regulation of non-therapeutic drugs and therapeutic medications is important to the AGCO. The effect of therapeutic medications, which are recognized as necessary in the normal husbandry of racehorses, administered too close to a race may interfere with the pre-race examinations.
In 2009, the Ontario Racing Commission (ORC) advised the industry that excessive cobalt could be detrimental to the health of horses. Since that time, others have confirmed this observation and testing protocols for cobalt became available. In 2015, the ORC initiated testing for cobalt in all official blood samples, which was continued by the AGCO until 2016, when the CPMA began testing for cobalt in official samples.
Clenbuterol Testing for Quarter Horses
In light of a breed-specific concern, and in cooperation with the Quarter Horse industry and the CPMA, the AGCO has Quarter Horse samples analyzed for clenbuterol at a greater sensitivity than other breeds. It has been reported that high doses of clenbuterol have been administered to horses in other jurisdictions to obtain an unfair advantage due to its muscle building effects. At high doses or when rapidly administered, clenbuterol can cause detrimental side effects to horses.
The Ontario EIPH program works under the guidelines set out by the CPMA. Horses certified by a veterinarian as having the EIPH condition will be administered furosemide 4 hours before their race. There is significant medical research showing that furosemide decreases the incidence and severity of EIPH in racehorses. Furosemide is a diuretic medication, previously marketed as “Lasix”.
The aim of this program is to protect the horse from being administered non-therapeutic medications that could be damaging to the health of the horse and/or impact their performance. The AGCO strives to ensure that non-therapeutic substances are eliminated from the industry for the protection of the horse.
Biological samples are collected to detect non-therapeutic medications or other substances of interest. The list of substances being analyzed is constantly monitored and updated to reflect any new developments in the industry.
Investigations are performed for a variety of cases including, but not limited to, accidents, animal cruelty concerns, positive tests, performance changes, and to gain information on injury occurrence. Investigators also follow up on information received from industry participants and the general public. The information collected from these investigations is used to promote fair racing and improve equine welfare by detecting prohibited medications or practices, inhumane care of horses, and other factors that could play a role in equine injuries.
AGCO Racing Operations Investigators receive ongoing specialized training in their field. Ontario has had an Equine Accident Investigator since 2014 who takes a comprehensive look at serious accidents in the province. Reports on serious accidents have made several recommendations that have improved horse safety, including the addition of warning lights and sirens (used to warn participants of a hazard) at all Ontario racetracks.
Investigations into any horse death are an important aspect of AGCO racing operations. The AGCO has a formal investigative process which involves a review of the full post mortem report and conversations with the horse’s connections (trainer, driver/jockey, veterinarian, etc.) who are asked about the care of the horse and are given an opportunity to raise concerns with the investigator. This investigation, which includes an examination of the horse’s medical records, allows the AGCO to review a comprehensive history of the horse and to evaluate it critically. This formal process demonstrates to the public and the industry, the significance the AGCO places on reducing racehorse deaths.
Barn and Vehicle Inspections
Vehicle and barn inspections are conducted at racetracks, as well as training centres of those participants licensed by the AGCO. These inspections may detect prohibited medications and substances, prohibited equipment (e.g. syringes and needles at the track), medications that have not been prescribed by a licensed AGCO veterinarian, unmarked containers of substances and incorrect labelling of medication. Any substances found to be suspicious or incorrectly labelled during barn and truck inspections may be sent to an AGCO-accredited laboratory for testing to detect nontherapeutic agents. This practice encourages proper labelling of containers in the barns, and promotes the practice of administering only safe therapeutics to race horses.
Each racetrack in Ontario is inspected to ensure that emergency equipment (e.g. a horse ambulance, Kimsey emergency splints) is present and in proper working order to effectively manage and care for a horse during an emergency situation. By ensuring the availability and functioning of such equipment, Commission and Official Veterinarians can provide the most effective emergency veterinary care to injured horses.
The Ontario horse racing industry supports these inspections to help ensure the welfare of Ontario racehorses, the integrity of Ontario racing and the protection of the public interest.