Santa Anita invests $500,000 in new scan technology to detect horse injuries earlier

by in News

The owners of Santa Anita racetrack are investing $500,000 in a new technology capable of scanning for hard-to-detect injuries while a horse is standing.

The device, called a Longmile Positron Emission Tomography, or MILE-PET, eliminates the need for anesthesia and can detect damage at a microscopic level, according to Dionne Benson, the newly appointed chief veterinary officer for the Stronach Group, which owns the Arcadia racing venue, California Horse Racing Board research indicates 90% of fatal breaks stem from preexisting problems.

“This technology will help to identify the injuries that tend to be the most dangerous and are not detectable using the current technology,” Benson said in a statement.

PET scans are common in human medicine, but are rare for horses because of increased risks from anesthesia. Researchers at UC Davis successfully performed the first MILE-PET scan on a standing horse in January 2019. The technology uses an openable ring to scan the limbs, including the fetlock, a damage-prone joint similar to a human ankle.

The Stronach Group’s investment follows the deaths of 23 horses since Dec. 26. All of the horses were injured and then euthanized while racing or training at Santa Anita. The CHRB and the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office are still investigating the deaths and have not released their findings.

In California’s 2016-17 horse racing season, 55% of fatal injuries to thoroughbreds involved the fetlock, according to the California Horse Racing Board.

Kathy Guillermo, the senior vice president of PETA, called the investment an essential step to preventing deaths.

“We have long advocated for the use of scan technology to detect injuries, and several years ago we asked the Stronach Group — as well as the Jockey Club, Churchill Downs and Del Mar — to fund a study of the scan technology equine veterinarian Dr. Sheila Lyons is developing with CurveBeam. No one took action then, to their shame,” Guillermo said in an email.

“We will press for additional scanning technology as this field is rapidly evolving and more than one type of machine will likely be needed.”

Belinda Stronach, chairman and president of the Stronach Group, pledged sweeping reforms in the aftermath of the deaths this year, including a ban on race-day medications and restrictions on the number of horses on the track. One of her promises was to invest in technology that could assist in the early detection of injuries.

“Our goal is to make every resource available to aid horsemen in determining the fitness of their horses for racing and training,” she said in a statement.

The Stronach Group is partnering with the Dolly Green Research Foundation to purchase the MILE-PET system. The machine will first go to UC Davis for a testing period and is expected to be available for use at Santa Anita’s on-site equine hospital by this fall.

“This is the most exciting development in equine imaging since standing MRI in the early 2000,” said Mathieu Spieret, an associate professor at UC Davis and an investigator on the project. “The development of the standing equine PET scanner will change the diagnostic approach to fetlock remodeling in racehorses, and too many other areas of equine imaging.”