The Jockey Club's announcement last summer that it would begin requiring microchips for foal registrations starting in 2017 was met with relatively little fanfare. That could be because microchipping has been standard for Thoroughbred registrations in the United Kingdom and Europe for years. What many horsemen and owners may not have realized, however, is that the start of microchipping could mark a new era in regulatory record-keeping and information exchange.
The European horse-keeping system links a microchip to a paper passport that contains the horse's medical record and travels with the horse throughout its life, allowing owners to have a complete record that may predate their purchase of the animal. That paper passport should keep horses out of the human food chain if they have received phenylbutazone or other substances not approved for human consumption, though officials say the system is fraught with fraud and maleficence.
On this side of the pond, the use of microchips could help officials digitize medication records that are already collected by some racing jurisdictions. The Jockey Club, together with the California Horse Racing Board, has been conducting field testing of new software to digitize the veterinary records submitted to the board.
California is one of several states, in addition to Colorado, Delaware, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming, that requires veterinarians turn in administration records of any therapeutic drugs (and sometimes, therapeutic procedures) to the board. Currently, those records are submitted in hard copy.
“We get reams and reams of handwritten papers,” said Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board. “It's virtually impossible to go through and search [them]. We do it if there are drug positives, or to see if a treatment was authorized, but in terms of trying to analyze veterinary treatments and procedures, it really is difficult to do.”
The pen and paper system also limits the available storage for such records. In California, Arthur said the records are often tossed after a year or so.
Submission requires extra work for veterinarians, too. Matt Iuliano, executive vice president and executive director at The Jockey Club, said he hopes a future version of the record-keeping software could easily integrate with veterinarians' mobile billing systems, so they could push one button to send treatment records to their offices and to the commission.
“This would be a lot more efficient than dragging a clipboard around saying, ‘Who is that horse again?' and being told, ‘That's the horse we call Skippy,'” said Iuliano. “Hospitals have leveraged this type of technology for years. You get a band and your entire history and medication list is attached to that band.”
Further, microchips could help racetrack practitioners more positively identify horses for the purposes of billing. If a groom only knows a horse by its barn name, a scan of the microchip would clear up any confusion about whether the right animal was being treated.
“With this [system], you don't have to worry about spelling the name correctly or what year the horse was born,” said Iuliano. “So attaching data to that just becomes a matter of what data you want.”
Iuliano said there's practically no limit to the applications for digital records. Theoretically, pedigree, performance, and breeding histories could be attached to the horse's microchip number, creating greater ease of information transfer after sales. Currently, microchip readers kept by veterinarians in the field can only read the horse's chip number, and from there, the chip number must be punched into The Jockey Club's software system to pull up registration and other associated information. In the future, Iuliano imagines it would be possible to connect the chip reader to a laptop or tablet via Bluetooth and allow an authorized user to cue up that information instantly.
The microchip system as it is will be useful to horse rescues. Lip tattoos fade over time, which can make identification of kill pen rescues challenging without Jockey Club papers. Iuliano said The Jockey Club waited several years after Europe began its microchip system in part to ensure the chip bonding technology had advanced enough to keep the chip from migrating from the nuchal ligament in the neck. This should mean that even when paper records are lost and tattoos have faded, the chip will still be available. Iuliano said his office will work with rescues to match chip numbers with identities, as it has done in recent years with tattoo numbers.
It's also possible the new system could provide record of a horse receiving medications that should prevent it from entering the human food chain. Using this to keep horses out of the slaughter pipeline, however, would require the creation of a system to scan chips and read available medical records at the appropriate time ahead of processing.
There could be one legal problem with a digital medical history — the confidentiality of those records. It could be that regulatory authorities have reasonable legal standing to put records into a digital system, but the sharing of those records with other entities might be more problematic, according to attorney Milt Toby.
“The confidentiality of the records varies a lot from state to state,” said Toby. “In Kentucky, the veterinarian has to preserve the confidentiality of the records unless the owner puts a release in writing or there is a court order. In other states, it's a little more liberal than that.”
Toby also observed that owners and veterinarians might have reasonable concerns about the integrity of records shared between multiple parties.
Arthur agreed that there will be a host of legal issues to be resolved in order to implement a multi-state digital record system — it's still early days.
“We have to remember that this is confidential information,” said Arthur. “There are a number of confidentiality issues that need to be worked out before this process could really be worked. We intend to have discussions when the time comes with the veterinary medical board and other entities … it would be inaccurate to say this is a simple problem.”
Iuliano hopes the technology for a medical records system will be available for use by racing commissions by the third quarter of this year.
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