ARCADIA, Calif. – Alan Balch was 10-years-old the first time he got on a horse. It was love at first sight.
“The first time I got on a horse was on a birthday party ride,” said Balch. “I didn’t have any money for riding lessons, or anything so I started working around the stable and cleaning up after the horses and feeding them and staying in my sleeping bag and doing all that kind of stuff.”
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More than a half a century later, Balch is the executive director of California Thoroughbred Trainers; he says the lessons he learned for the horses back then, he carries today.
“The very first thing you’re taught about horses, whether you’re taught formally or informally, is that the horse’s welfare has to come first. You always have to treat the horse properly,” said Balch.
That’s why he is looking forward to bringing new technology to the Santa Anita Racetrack, technology that will hopefully help trainers and vets make better decisions about which horses are safe to race.
“Since the horses can’t talk, they can’t really tell you where it hurts, if it hurts, if it’s nothing to be worried about, or if it’s something to be worried about. So we need diagnostic techniques,” Balch said.
The MRI machine, which is already being used in other locations allows the horse to be scanned while standing. It could help vets determine if there are hairline fractures or bruising. The MRI cost upwards of $700,000.
“A lot of together people individuals, trainers, owners, fans contributed. It’s one of those things that if everyone contributes it’s very gratifying to see the money get raised by a broad section of the horse community,” Balch said.
The MRI is just one attempt to address the crisis of horse deaths at Santa Anita Racetrack which stands at 37 since December of 2018.
Other changes include a new pet scan facility, new procedures for vets and medications, and this week, the formation of the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition. The coalition is a joint effort by the nation's thoroughbred racing organizations to enhance protections and develop reforms for the safety of race horses and jockeys.
Together they represent more than 85 percent of graded stakes racing in the United States.
It’s all a big effort from Kentucky to California, according to Balch.
“The whole goal is to make sure that anything we do with the horses puts their welfare first and anyone who works on the backstretch here will tell you the same: we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t love the horses,” Balch said.
The equine MRI is scheduled to be in full operation early in the horseracing season, which starts December 26.