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Video: A Day At The Races: The Real Life Of A Racehorse Veterinarian

Dr. Kate Papp shares a behind-the-scenes look at her career as a racetrack vet.


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Like a lot of little girls, Kathryn Papp, DVM, grew up loving horses. A veterinarian who specialized in treating racehorses seemed like a dream job. She'd get to be with the animals she loved so much every day. The reality of  her career choice was a nightmarish conflict between what the job actually involved and her sworn professional oath of preventing suffering of animals and protecting them.

Could she inject the horses she was there to take care of with the medications and painkillers they didn't need? Could you if you were in her place? Or would you agonize over it day after day?

Dr. Papp was in agony.

"Every day, I almost quit," she said, according to NBC News. "Every day, I decide I don't want to see 2-year-olds that haven't even run yet be euthanized in a dirt pit at the back of a racetrack because somebody trained them too hard, medicated them too much, pushed them too far."

Relying too heavily on medication so the horses can continue to race and train is often seen in the industry. Doing so puts the horses at risk, and sometimes results in their deaths. Those against that practice are geared to change it. Papp is one of them.

"Everything that's given to the horse is with the main goal in mind, which is having them run well, win races, pay well to the owners and to the trainers," Papp told NBC News. "And anything that they can give the horses — whether it be legal, illegal, even non-necessary substances — they will do...in an attempt to have a winner or improve their horse."

Papp states that trainers are often responsible for the overmedicating of the racehorses; that they dictate which medications the horses get. This practice results in adminstering the medication in a preventative measure rather than on an as-needed basis.

"They don't want to spend the money to know what's wrong. They just want to fix it," Papp told NBC News.

Papp began her career in Elkton, Maryland, at the Fair Hill Training Center as an assistant veterinarian. It was there that she first noticed the just-fix-it mentality. She was required to give horses anti-bleeding meds, corticosteroids and other anti-inflammatory medications and painkillers. All of which were trainer-requested.

That kind of indiscriminate administration of medication can cover up any injuries the horses may have.

After leaving Fair Hill and opening her own practice, Papp treated a racehorse that had a hind leg stress fracture. She advised its trainer to let the injury heal by resting the horse for three months. However, the owner gave the horse to a different trainer. Instead of allowing the injury to heal, that trainer entered the horse in a race after giving it painkillers.

"That horse raced and was pulled up with a broken leg, with his leg dangling, and had to be euthanized on the racetrack," Papp told NBC News. "...It was crushing, because I felt like I had notified people...[of] what was going on with the horse and no one seemed to care. ...Nobody cared and that horse died because of it."

Another incident involved Papp administering pain medication to a horse with a small bone chip in his knee — something she still feels guilty about. He raced with the injury, but his knee was worse. He now lives with Papp and her husband on a farm.

As a result of such incidents, Papp changed her career path. She opened her own veterinary practice where she treats show horses, pleasure horses and racehorses. Injuries are treated as they occur.

"I have a good group of clients that want to do things right and are pretty successful and that's what...keeps me working on the racetrack part-time," she said, according to NBC News.

Papp's testimony in a 2012 Congressional Hearing as well as undercover investigations of trainer Steve Asmussen by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has sparked inquiry into the activities in the horse racing industry.

Ogden Mills Phipps, chairman of the Jockey Club, requested that every horse competing in the 2014 Triple Crown have his veterinary records made public. According to The New York Times, Phipps "said the goal was to ensure that the horses were sound and not under the influence of unncessary drugs and that the races were run safely and fairly."

If passed, the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act of 2012 would ban medication on race days, phase out the use of Lasix and institute a drug policy for the industry.

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