First came the greetings. Last week, when Dr. Christy Klatt saw Hot Shot Kid in the stables at Canterbury Park, she gave the chestnut gelding a big hug to welcome him back to the Shakopee track.
This wasn't strictly a social call, though. This was about preventing the kinds of catastrophic injuries that have roiled horse racing in recent months.
Klatt and two other Minnesota Racing Commission veterinarians came to Mac Robertson's barn to examine horses that had not raced over the winter, part of Canterbury's equine safety protocols. They felt the horses' legs for heat or swelling, flexed their knees and ankles, took note of their demeanor and watched them jog.
Hot Shot Kid, one of the best horses in Canterbury Park history, passed all his tests. But he will see plenty more of Klatt during a Canterbury season that begins Saturday. Each time he runs, he will be examined before the race, and the vets will watch him every step of the way from the saddling paddock to the post-race cool-out.
"We get to know all these horses very, very well," said Klatt, in her 18th year as a regulatory veterinarian at Canterbury Park. "Our goal is to do absolutely everything we can to keep every one of them safe."
The welfare of racehorses has become a trending topic in recent weeks, following a spate of racing-related deaths at major tracks. Nine horses have died at Churchill Downs in the past month, including two that were fatally injured in races on the Kentucky Derby undercard. Another was euthanized after a severe injury in a race before last weekend's Preakness.
Statistics show horse racing is improving its safety record, with the fatality rate declining 37.5% since 2009. Still, the industry faces public pressure to do better.
The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, a federal law that went into effect last July, has created uniform national standards for safety protocols and drug testing. While some in horse racing are pushing back against the stricter rules, Canterbury is adapting quickly. Nearly all of the HISA regulations were already in place in Minnesota, which has made horse welfare a priority since racing began here in 1985.
There were four thoroughbred fatalities at Canterbury last year, equaling the lowest figure since 2011. The target of Dr. Lynn Hovda, chief veterinarian for the Minnesota Racing Commission, is even smaller: Zero.
"When [a death] happens, you don't sleep," said Hovda, in her 26th year at Canterbury. "You go over it in your mind all night, thinking, 'What did I miss?'
"Even an injury that's not catastrophic, you wonder whether you could have done something else to prevent it. Anything we can think of to do, we're doing it. And we don't apologize for being tough."
Strict, detailed rules
About 1,200 horses race at Canterbury every summer. Each one has a medical card on file in the state veterinarians' office, with details on its health history, racing history and previous veterinary exams.
Before a horse is allowed to run, the vets look at its past performances to learn when it last raced and search for any red flags. They also check to see if a horse has been on a veterinarians' list at any other track, which temporarily restricts it from racing.
Minnesota's rules require any horse that hasn't raced in six months to pass a physical exam. If a horse hasn't run for a year or more, it must complete an official workout in a minimum time and take a medication test. Those on the vets' list, at Canterbury or elsewhere, also must pass certain tests to be allowed to run.
Horses older than 11 are barred from racing at Canterbury. So are those that haven't raced in three years or more, and those age 6 and older that have never won.
"We're always tweaking and refining the rules," said Hovda, whose staff gives about 350 race-day exams every week of the Canterbury season. "As things come up, we address them. We want to have as many safeguards as we can."
On race day, the veterinarians follow horses from the time they leave their barns. Vets are stationed in the paddock, behind the starting gate and in a pickup truck that chases the field around the track, watching for any sign of distress and ready to respond instantly if an injury happens.
They have the power to scratch a horse at any time. That sometimes causes friction with trainers, owners and even bettors.
"I scratched a horse once after it flipped in the gate, and a man yelled at me, 'You purposely messed up my superfecta!'" Klatt recalled. "At the time, I didn't even know what a superfecta was. That was the first time I was yelled at for that, but we do get yelled at for a lot of things."
Hovda and Klatt have received plenty of abuse for enforcing the rules, including calls for them to be fired. Klatt said she knows of trainers who will not race at Canterbury because they don't want the scrutiny.
Others appreciate the vets, knowing they can catch problems before they become tragedies. Mike Cronin, executive director of the Minnesota Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association — which represents Canterbury's horsemen — said while some horsemen chafe at regulations, the veterinarians "get a lot of respect" from Canterbury's trainers.
"They have a tough job, and the protocols are right up there with some of the most rigorous in the country," Cronin said. "But they're wonderful communicators. They're very understanding of what the trainers have to go through. And they're doing as much as they can to take care of the horses."
Proof in the numbers
In the early 1980s, when Dr. Camille McArdle was working at racetracks in Florida, pre-race veterinary exams were rare. Each state created its own rules regarding racehorse welfare, and some did the bare minimum — a situation that persisted until last year, when the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act introduced national regulations.
The Minnesota Racing Commission hired McArdle as its first chief veterinarian, giving her the freedom to create policy as she saw fit. She chose to be strict from the beginning, setting a tone that would make the state a leader in equine safety.
"The idea was, if Minnesota was going to start horse racing, let's do it right," said McArdle, now chair of the Minnesota Racing Commission. "Let's set a foundation that's not burdensome to the horsemen but protects the horse. That was necessary if we were going to have a quality racing program."
Canterbury's owners supported that stance. The track pays for the regulatory costs, and Hovda said officials "never say no" when asked to pony up for safety equipment, such as a state-of-the art horse ambulance, special railings and extra padding in the starting gate.
That proactive approach helped limit Canterbury's thoroughbred fatalities to 1.03 per 1,000 starts last season, the lowest in records dating to 2011. According to the Jockey Club's Equine Injury Database, which compiles statistics for 115 racing organizations, there were 1.25 deaths per 1,000 starts at North American tracks last year — the lowest in the database's 14-year history.
Tom Rooney, president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, said the declining fatality rate shows horse racing "is the safest it's ever been.'' But the recent deaths have reinvigorated discussion about horse welfare among both fans and opponents of the sport.
Rooney said that concern underscores the need to fully embrace the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, which has faced legal challenges from states and horsemen's groups that oppose federal regulation.
"This is the clearest action we can take as an industry to show race fans and the general public that we are committed to continuing to improve our sport," Rooney said. "We can point to real strides made in the area of safety and integrity across the country. But the fact of the matter is, we have to do better, and we all know that."
Hovda and her staff have gained new tools and insight over the years. Drug testing has improved and increased, with 1,360 tests administered last year at Canterbury. Each equine fatality is followed by a post-mortem exam and is investigated by a committee, helping veterinarians understand how fatal injuries occur and how to prevent them.
Reducing the risks to horses is a complicated task, but the philosophy behind it is simple.
"The horse comes first," Hovda said. "That's it."