Expanding Thoroughbred Care Through Diagnostic Technology

04.15.21

How increased diagnostic capabilities are helping advance the culture of safety in horse racing

As a Coalition of industry leaders, we are constantly working toward a stronger, more transparent culture of safety. Advancements in diagnostic imaging technology have made great strides in recent years – spurred in large part by Coalition members. These technologies provide veterinarians and trainers who care for our equine athletes with new tools and insights to identify potential risks to their health and safety.

Over the years, veterinarians have used several methods of diagnostic imaging technology to identify injuries or other conditions in horses, including digital radiography (X-rays), ultrasonography (ultrasounds), video endoscopy, scintigraphy (bone scan), and computerized tomography (CT) scan. Recently, two diagnostic imaging technologies have shown increased promise in the area of equine safety: magnetic resonance imaging and positron emission tomography. The advantages of both technologies are distinct. Coupled together, they allow for more robust care for Thoroughbreds.

What is MRI?

MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, is a powerful diagnostic tool that is capable of showing soft tissue structures undetected by traditional X-rays. An MRI is often used to assess bone structures, such as those within the hoof, before those changes can be detected by radiographs. The technology is useful in uncovering areas of inflammation, including joint inflammation, as well as diagnosing tendon and ligament lesions.

What is PET?

PET, or positron emission tomography, is the newest imaging tool in veterinary medicine. PET scans present three-dimensional digital images with increased anatomical accuracy compared to other modalities. Veterinarians administer a radioactive isotope intravenously, which highlights areas of change to bone and soft tissue. PET imaging allows veterinarians to identify changes that were previously unable to be seen by existing diagnostics.   

How do these technologies benefit equine athletes?

Both MRIs and PETs have positive impacts on the treatment and prevention of equine injuries. Veterinarians are able to identify pre-existing conditions earlier, give more effective diagnoses and plan better treatments for equine athletes.

In 2019, with the Dolly Green Research Foundation, Coalition member 1/ST RACING purchased and installed a standing Longmile Positron Emission Tomography (MILE-PET) Scan machine and a standing PET at the Southern California Equine Foundation Hospital, the equine hospital located at Santa Anita Park racetrack in Southern California. The first-of-its-kind machine is able to take a PET scan of a horse’s fetlock joint while the horse remains standing. 1/ST RACING recently worked once again with the Dolly Green Research Foundation and The Southern California Equine Foundation, as well as several individuals, to purchase and install a standing MRI system from Hallmarq Veterinary Imaging. Both technologies allow for equine athletes to remain standing, removing the need for general anesthesia and significantly reducing the risk of injury compared to previous methods which required horses to be both laying down and anesthetized to perform a scan. Having this game-changing technology onsite increases accessibility and reduces cost, meaning more trainers and horsemen are able to bring their horses in for potentially career-saving scans.

By July 2020, just six months after its installation, over 100 scans had been performed using the MILE-PET technology. At Santa Anita Park, preliminary studies on the two technologies are underway with the goal of building a baseline of data that will help identify trends and discover pre-existing conditions in Thoroughbreds, such as microfractures, before an injury occurs.  Additionally, 1/ST RACING has invested in an additional MILE-PET scanner which will be available to the horses at Golden Gate Fields.

And it appears to be working. According to the California Horse Racing Board’s recent annual report, “[t]hese two diagnostic imaging modalities have greatly improved diagnostic capabilities of veterinarians.”

“The data we are collecting through the standing MRI and standing PET machines at Santa Anita Park will increase the ability to diagnose pre-existing conditions before they become injuries,” said Dr. Dionne Benson, Chief Veterinary Officer, 1/ST RACING. “1/ST RACING is proud to play a leading role in expanding care for equine athletes through the use of this ground-breaking technology and we look forward to working with researchers to establish a more complete baseline.”

It is crucial to note that these new tools aren’t a magic bullet for Thoroughbred care. Rather, they should be viewed as one important component of a robust culture of safety. As our industry works to accumulate more data and better understand how new diagnostic technologies relate to safety outcomes, these tools should be implemented in conjunction with other necessary reforms, like those championed by the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition, to ensure Thoroughbred care for years to come.