I often answer the question, “Why would someone want a postmortem exam on an animal?”

As a veterinary pathologist involved in a necropsy program for racehorses that have sustained injuries on the racetrack, I get much the same question from both lay people and professionals in the horse industry.

People understand why a postmortem is warranted in a case of sudden death but understanding the need for a necropsy on a horse that has sustained a catastrophic musculoskeletal injury might be less clear. Like all athletes, Thoroughbred racehorses experience a consistent pattern of repetitive use wear associated with their musculoskeletal systems. An analogy familiar to most is the term “tennis elbow.” For people with even a passing familiarity with sports, “Tommy John” surgery for baseball pitchers is a commonly recognized term, as rotator cuff injuries also are a familiar malady in quarterbacks.

The association between pre-existing lesions and catastrophic injuries has been documented for many years, beginning with the flagship postmortem program instituted in California. More than 80% of racehorses that suffer a fatal musculoskeletal injury have pre-existing underlying pathology related to the fracture, indicating that the final catastrophic event is the culmination of repetitive wear and not an isolated incident caused by a “bad step” or a “hole in the track.” By carefully examining the horse, the pathologist can document the acute, catastrophic injury as well as the underlying pathology. Additionally, he or she can note nonmusculoskeletal health issues.

Mortality reviews are conducted with the trainers, the equine medical director, and the stewards following catastrophic breakdowns. The goal of these reviews is not to place blame, but to educate and implement strategies to prevent similar injuries going forward. The horse’s overall health and condition, his training and racing records, and the postmortem exam outcome are reviewed in the hope of identifying risk factors for that particular horse and opportunities for future intervention.

Additionally, it is hoped that the trainer will disseminate the knowledge gained by sharing their experience with others, including those who work in their barn, friends, and colleagues. Health issues that might not have been clinically apparent but are identified on postmortem examination can be addressed, with informative conversations regarding such things as exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage and gastric ulcers. In a very complicated set of circumstances, the postmortem examination brings objectivity to these observations.

The ultimate goal of any postmortem program is to mitigate the horse’s injury risk and, in turn, the exercise riders and jockeys that are involved. Catastrophic breakdowns are the leading cause of serious injury to riders, and in some tragic cases, death. While postmortem examinations might be “too late” for the horse in question, the value to the entire population of racehorses and to the connections of a particular horse are invaluable. We owe it to the horses, riders, trainers, and the racing community as a whole to address this issue. Breakdowns are not inevitable events. We can mitigate the risk of their occurrence in racehorses through careful and determined study.

Contact: Laura A. Kennedy DVM, Dipl. ACVP—drlaurakennedy@uky.edu—859/257-6393—University of Kentucky Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, Lexington