Horse wellness plan at Rillito Park paying dividends

Winning with wellness program at Rillito Park

TUCSON, AZ (KOLD News 13) - For the first time, in the 2019 racing season, Rillito Park has implemented a wellness program for its race horses.

It is not unusual for tracks these days to have wellness programs to keep horses safe, but what is unique about the program at Rillito Park is, it involves University of Arizona veterinary students.

They get paid a small wage but they help out in big ways.

“We have four equine science pre-vet students that are paired with the veterinarians,” said Dan Fick, the track steward and 40-year veteran of the horse racing industry. “They go around with them in the mornings, they the follow them to the paddock, in the gate, also coming up to the steward stand.”

Fick, who helped the program get started and administers it says “they’re learning about all aspects of horse racing, hands on.”

That’s what made the program so attractive to 20-year-old Manny Hernandez, a student from Chicago.

“I always knew I wanted to be a vet at a race track,” he said.

The family lived in the suburbs of Chicago near a farm where they boarded horses. It became a family affair.

“From the 6th grade, I was riding,” he said. “We wrote a letter to ourselves and my ultimate goal was University of Arizona.”

He says it’s the hands on experience that sets the U of A apart.

“A lot of bigger schools, other schools won’t offer that with the race track,” he said.

He was one of four chosen from a long list of applicants and believes it’s his love of horses that helped in the decision.

“Our ultimate goal is the health of the animal,” he said.

And that goal has likely been instrumental in the results of the animal welfare halfway through the 2019 season.

“We’ve had only one injury this year,” said track vet Chuck Hoover. “It was pre-race, did not happen during the race.”

While most race tracks check the horse before the race, it’s not often every horse in every race is checked.

“We wanted to look at all the horses,” Fick said. “And we got that done for the first time in Arizona this past week.”

But it goes beyond the race inspections. The wellness program also includes trainers, owners and jockeys.

“We’ve been having lectures,” said Hoover. “They cover a variety of maintenance issues including feeding and stabling.”

The horses are also checked after a race to make sure no issues cropped up during their run.

If needed, the horses are also given massages, pre-race to loosen them up and post race to cool them down.

“If there’s anything that’s even questionable, we’ll scratch the horse prior to the race,” he said. “We don’t want any horses injured and we definitely don’t want any jockey’s injured.”

So far so good this season. But whether this season is safer than any others remains to be seen.

“We’re doing okay,” Hoover said. “We won’t know the results until the end of the season just how good.”

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