By Denise Steffanus
Continuing education for trainers and their assistants has been a topic kicked around the racing industry since 1999. In the world at large, continuing education is a standard requirement to maintain an occupational license. Even hair stylists must complete courses to renew their credentials. But horse trainers, who have the lives of horses and riders in their hands, do not.
The Jockey Club's inaugural Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit in 2006 identified the need for trainer continuing education to enhance equine welfare, health and safety. The Association of Racing Commissioners International (ARCI) joined the movement in 2008 when it issued the model rule requiring trainers to complete at least four hours per calendar year of approved continuing education courses in order to maintain a current license.
Model rules are suggested policies. They have no power of enforcement unless they are adopted by individual jurisdictions. The Jockey Club's Thoroughbred Safety Committee followed up by urging all racing jurisdictions to adopt the continuing education model rule.
The initiative gained supporters, with the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit, the North American Racing Academy (NARA), and the University of California-Davis joining forces to produce a series of 11 online modules called the Advanced Horsemanship Program. Cathy O'Meara, manager of Industry Initiatives for the Jockey Club, coordinates the program.
"The request from the industry was to provide an online platform for educational content that could be accessible for free to the industry and provide tracking," O'Meara said. "These [modules] were produced or reviewed by professors at NARA and UC-Davis, with most of the topics stemming from the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit. The system used is Articulate, which is a standard online course development program used by many universities."
The courses include timely issues, such as bisphosphonate use in racehorses and the management of equine herpesvirus (EHV-1). Another module teaches trainers how to identify horses at risk for a breakdown.
The UC-Davis modules on scapular and humeral fractures provide illustrations of the injuries that are reinforced by actual photos of the post-mortem examination of the fractured bones. The combination of the two, plus information about factors that contribute to these fractures, give trainers a better comprehension of what's going on inside the horse.
As of mid-June, 365 participants had accessed the program, completing 715 course modules. When a participant has completed a course, he or she can specify which racing jurisdiction(s) to notify. At present, New York, California and Delaware accept these certifications of completion. O'Meara maintains a file of certificates for other jurisdictions to be provided to them if and when they adopt a continuing education program.
The most popular course, with 106 completions, is UC-Davis' module on humeral fractures. The least popular course is "The Hoof Inside and Out," with only 20 completions. For a full list of the online courses, see the sidebar "Online Continuing Education Modules for Trainers and Assistants." These courses are free and open to the public.
New York: What not to do
New York is the only U.S. racing jurisdiction that requires continuing education for trainers and assistants. The New York State Gaming Commission approved the requirement in December 2016, mandating four hours of approved continuing education each calendar year as a requirement for license renewal, effective January 1, 2017. Those not domiciled in New York who have 12 or fewer starts during the previous 12 months may request a waiver of this requirement.
The New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (NYTHA) produced classroom presentations at the racetrack for horsemen to comply with the gaming commission's regulation. Online access to the continuing education program, which is available via YouTube, is simply a video of the classroom lectures, with no way to verify if the trainer actually watched the video. The gaming commission also accepts approved continuing education credits offered by the Grayson-Jockey Club, American Veterinary Medical Association-approved Colleges of Veterinary Medicine, other North American racing jurisdictions, and the ARCI.
The New York program fizzled. Nine days before the first year's deadline for compliance, a memo from Dr. Scott Palmer, the gaming commission's equine medical director, extended the deadline for compliance by 45 days, until February 15, 2018, because "many" trainers had not complied. What is interesting is that trainers need only email a form to the gaming commission that states they have completed the required continuing education courses. It's the honor system, with no proof required.
Attendance at the classroom lectures has been sparse. A presentation on August 22, 2017, delivered by Palmer, was attended by 30 participants, with one man visibly asleep in his seat; a presentation on biosecurity on August 21, 2018, had just two attendees, with the corresponding YouTube video gaining just 18 views.
Racing Hall of Fame trainer Claude "Shug" McGaughey III, who has mastered the powerhouse Phipps stable since 1985, expressed his frustrations, not with the program but with the way the gaming commission presented it.
"It almost looked like, 'Well, you're a bunch of idiots, and you have to take this stuff to catch up.' And it was almost sort of a threatening gesture that if you didn't have it done, you weren't going to have a trainer's license," McGaughey said. "I called Dr. Palmer and he sent me the stuff, and I did it. There was some pretty interesting stuff in there. It was easy to do. But the threatening manner in which they did it didn't suit me."
McGaughey, with the help of NYTHA Executive Director Andrea "Andy" Belfiore, completed the online courses; plus he attended a classroom presentation on insurance. The 68-year-old trainer, who admitted, "I'm not really good with all that tech stuff," said it all was easier once he had some help. And the information presented was so interesting, he recommended it to his assistant and his son.
McGaughey said the gaming commission needs to brush up on its public relations.
"I think that probably the biggest mistake they made was when they kind of came out and were as aggressive as they were about it," he said. "A lot of times it doesn't hurt to explain to people in person instead of just online or in a memo or something.
"Don't make it look like we don't know what we're doing. I've been doing this for 40 years, and I'm not a genius, but I've got some sort of idea of what the rules are, what you need to do, how you get licensed, and all that kind of stuff. And I don't really need to have somebody throwing that in my face. So I would think that maybe if they had presented it a little better, if they would present it better, some of the stuff that they do, they just didn't handle it, I think, in the right direction."
Todd Pletcher, who has amassed 40 leading-trainer titles in New York since 1998, criticized the lack of communication regarding the program…
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