Equine vet Doctor Alina Vale is making positive change

31 August 2023 Written by Danny Russell

In the American summer of 2019, Dr Alina Vale found herself in the centre of Californian horse racing’s darkest days. She and her team conducted a full investigation, and with their recommendations, welfare and outcomes have improved.

More than 30 horses had died at Santa Anita Park in training and race mishaps and public unrest was swelling into a tsunami that threatened to sweep the industry into extinction. Trainers were on edge. The warning siren at Santa Anita Park race track was blaring with eerie regularity.

The dreaded sound meant that either a horse was loose or had suffered a catastrophic injury. The trainers would hold their breath, waiting ominously to see if the horse ambulance would roll out onto the track to euthanise a fallen animal.

“We were at our last straw,” Dr Vale explained.

“One more fatality, one more fracture and racing could be done.”

Dr Vale says the American public’s perception of horse racing in 2019 hit rock bottom and the shock waves spread throughout the world.

In response to the public disquiet in California and across America, the Los Angeles District Attorney ordered an investigation into the Santa Anita deaths.

The California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) launched a parallel inquiry.

This is where Dr Vale entered the fray. She was asked to sift through trainer interviews and industry feedback to help compile the CHRB’s report.

They needed to find out how these horses were being injured – most of them had sesamoid bone fractures – why it was happening and what they could do to plot a safer path forward.

“That report ended up taking months to sort through,” Dr Vale said.

“But one of the key regulations that CHRB adopted was that every equine fatality would have a full review.”

Dr Vale, 38, became the chief inquirer. She would pore over a deceased horse’s training record, medical records, racing records and the post-mortem report before sitting down with the trainer and their practising veterinarian to ask questions.

She was looking for red flags – anything that could explain or pinpoint why a horse had developed a subclinical lesion that would later lead to a fatal injury.

“Often a horse that suffers a catastrophic fracture does not show obvious lameness, so it might be something as simple as the trainer changing a horse’s exercise program a month or two before the incident,” Dr Vale said.

She said trainer education became a key component of their reforms. CHRB oversees 371 trainers and almost 4000 horses in work.

“There have been some barns (stables) that have closed or moved out of state,” she said. “I don't see that as a bad thing. I think that we really need only those that are able to provide the highest standard of care.”

The report threw up a series of recommendations, including the introduction of regulations that outlawed bad practices.

Cameras were introduced to stables and numerous monitoring vets were posted around the state’s tracks to watch the morning exercise of every single horse. Those that showed lameness were immediately stood down, while others with peculiarities were later inspected in the stables.

“Those horses that are showing obvious pain, those are the easy ones we can catch. I feel like we have reduced all those fatality numbers,” Dr Vale said.

“It’s the subtle lesions that are deep within the bone where the fetlock joint is not swollen and not hot and painful. It’s these lesions that are really hard to detect.”

Technology has played a major part. The development of 3D imaging, or equine PET scans, by UC Davis radiologist Dr Mathieu Spriet late in 2019 was a major step forward – they can now locate lesions in the sesamoid bone before they develop into complete fractures. PET scans are said to have benefited more than 500 horses in the past three years at Santa Anita.

Blood monitoring is another potential step forward.

“One of the research projects we are working on with the University of Kentucky are biomarkers,” Dr Vale said.

“So pulling a blood sample and looking at markers of inflammation so that we can predict horses that are possibly at increased risk of injury.”

Medication rules were changed and certain drugs were banned.

Dr Vale said the CHRB vets are constantly sharing information with other jurisdictions around the world, including Victoria.

She said the pre-race screening test introduced for Melbourne Cup runners was “a very bold move” and an area they would monitor and possibly emulate for their high-profile races in coming years.

She says Racing Victoria has expressed interest in using a PET scan as a safety measure in the lead up to future Melbourne Cups.

Dr Vale said it is hard to quantify what impact the welfare reforms have had four years later. She says there are fewer horses, smaller fields, fewer race days and smaller breeding crops. “But we still have a lot of unmeasured things we need to address,” she said. “We still have too many fatalities. We are never going to get to zero.

“I would say the fact that we are still racing means that it shows how much we care and how much we are trying”

Dr Vale is Chair of the California Horse Racing Board Postmortem Examination Review Program and consultant of the newly established Horseracing Integrity & Safety Authority (HISA). At the end of May this year she found herself in an eerily similar scenario to the Santa Anita investigation of 2019. She has been asked by HISA to look into the 13 recent fatalities at Churchill Downs in Kentucky amid growing public concern. Her review had only just started at the time of publishing.

Dr Vale grew up riding endurance competitions before studying veterinary science and joining an equine practice in Southern California.

She traces her passionate pursuit of horse welfare back to one of her saddest moments on the track in 2012.

Her favourite horse – “a sweet chestnut filly with a big white blaze that would whinny at me every morning for a snuggle” – suffered a fracture in a hind limb during a morning workout. Dr Vale was devastated.

“My boss euthanised her for me because she knew how attached I was,” Dr Vale said. But it dawned on her that the trainer had “never asked me to evaluate her for lameness or poor performance”. There had been no red flags.

“So that’s when I realised, ‘we have to do better’. We need to be able to detect these lesions – even if the horse isn’t showing an obvious clinical lameness,” she said.

“So that was kind of the lightbulb moment for me that as much as I think I am a good vet, I can’t predict which horses are going to sustain an injury.”

Dr Vale left the race track practice to pursue a Master’s degree in veterinary forensic medicine. She wanted to use that knowledge to help define the line between the appropriate use of horses – especially race horses – and the abuse of horses.

“I believe that most trainers, most horsemen, and most individuals within the racing industry are not intentionally harming horses. They don't want them to sustain a fracture,” she said. “I think that is so important to us from a public perception point of view. We really need to prove that.”

But she said animal cruelty has been explained to her as: “Socially unacceptable behaviour that intentionally causes unnecessary pain, suffering, or distress to and/or death of an animal”.

“It says socially unacceptable behaviour – so the racing industry does not decide if it is cruel or not. It is society that defines cruelty,” Dr Vale said.

“And so I hear people talk about the social licence to operate – it’s kind of a term that has come about in the last few years and I really do think it’s tied to this, that society defines or decides what animal cruelty is.”

Dr Vale said much has changed for the better since she became an equine vet – education, trainer empowerment, stricter rules, greater vigilance and improved technique and technology. That “sweet chestnut filly” could now be saved by advancements in surgery. But the industry has to keep pace with public expectations and demands. 

“We need the Taylor Swift fans of the world to appreciate the changes being made to improve race horse welfare and safety,” Dr Vale said.