Mark Berner

Mark Berner first worked with horses on a small farm in upstate New York in 1973, where he mucked stalls and cared for racehorses with infirmities that were turned out there until ready to resume training.

He joined American Teletimer as a clocker in 1976 and operated their electronic timing equipment at many east coast racetracks until 1978, when he was permanently stationed at NYRA's three tracks, Aqueduct Racetrack, Belmont Park & Saratoga Race Course.

Berner did freelance handicapping for the New York Daily News in 1982 & 1983 before joining Newsday in 1984 as a handicapper and later a sports reporter. Berner teamed up with Pricci to win the United Press International's 1985 UPI New York Newspaper Awards for Best Sports Story. In addition, Berner wrote and handicapped for several trade publications including, Daily Racing Form, Sports Eye, Racing Action, The Thoroughbred Times, Horse Player Magazine and New York Sportsnet.

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Monday, April 08, 2019


Racing Must Not Ignore Recent Science


By Mark Berner

Last week in Dealer’s Choice, co-written with executive editor John Pricci, HRI did something seldom done anywhere: Sharing science prior to its appearance in a major peer-reviewed medical journal.

Most scientists publish their findings in a journal first--before the media learns of it. But not Dr. Nena Winand. She scooped herself, acting in the best interests of Thoroughbred horses. (See: Mutant Gene Causes Horse Bleeding and Breakdowns - HRI - April 3, 2019. https://bit.ly/2K3Xrgz)

Routinely, a scientific paper is released first, and Winand initially requested that I not share her research until the findings were published. But after Arms Dealer became the 23rd equine fatality at Santa Anita Park since DEC 26, 2018, she granted HRI permission to run with the story.

Dr. Winand, DMV, PhD in genetic scientist, identified Warmblood Fragile Foal Syndrome [WFFS] at Cornell University in April, 2011.

Dr. Winand’s research found that a mutant gene is present in at least 15% of all Thoroughbreds, and may be as high as 30% or more in the U.S., where lines of bleeders have been highly selected.

In brief, WFFS prevents collagen--the body’s most abundant protein and the glue that holds together all living things--from forming properly, thus keeping the protein from doing its job.

Collagen is necessary to form strong cell walls that keep blood vessels from bursting under pressure. Collagen also is involved in the creation of strong bones, helping to keep them from shattering under stress. Collagen also forms connective tissue that keeps muscles attached to bone.

Rebecca Bellone commented on the story April 5, stating “I was contacted by one of the writers this week but was not able to respond in time, so I am responding now.

“As Director of the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory [at the University of California Davis] and an equine geneticist, I would like to communicate with your readership that there are no reported cases in scientific literature to substantiate these connections. The [WFFS] mutation has not been linked to bleeding disorders or poor bone formation in the Thoroughbred.

“Our laboratory did identify the allele for Fragile Foal in the Thoroughbred breed, but it was determined to be at a very low frequency (less than 4%). Furthermore, in Warmbloods, it has been shown to only behave in a recessive fashion.

“This means that for a horse to be affected it needs to be homozygous, or have two copies of the mutation. We have not identified any Thoroughbreds who are homozygous for the Fragile Foal mutation.

“Based on all of the available data, it is highly unlikely that this mutation has anything to do with bleeding or breakdowns,” concluded Bellone.

“Well that's incorrect but I didn't discuss it with her,” Winand responded. In fairness to Bellone, she did not read Winand’s work as it is yet to be published. “She also is not a veterinarian [and] not really capable of identifying phenotype herself.” But that’s only part of the issue.

“[Their research] only looked at 95 Thoroughbreds which is an inadequate sample. Obviously they are not doing more population screens, which I thought they would do because they could have had a good paper.

“Of course, they haven't identified any Thoroughbreds with two gene copies. They don't test aborted foals for this, especially Thoroughbred foals. She doesn't understand that the stillbirth/abortion/weak foal phenotype is one of several phenotypes seen in EDS VI, the others being bone fragility and bleeding.

“The effect on lysine hydroxylation is so severe that homozygosity is basically a lethal phenotype. It mimics a recessive because there is adequate lysine hydroxylation to make a normal appearing horse with weak bone and cardiovascular tissue that fails under stress.

“Our understanding of the critical role of lysine hydroxylation in the integrity of bone and cardiovascular structures is well established in the human EDS VI literature, as well as in veterinary studies in the horse.

“Although the reproductive loss/fragile foal phenotype gives the appearance of behaving as a recessive trait, it is important to understand that EDS VI involves multiple phenotypes and that it is common for some genetic disorders to have both recessive and dominant phenotypes depending on the nature of the specific mutations involved.

“It is also not uncommon for the distinction between recessive versus dominant behavior to breakdown when inherited disorders are studied at the tissue, cellular, biochemical and biophysical levels.”

Even before Winand’s findings become public, it is fair to ask two questions:

How many more horses will die as a result of the presence of this mutant gene? Further, doesn’t The Jockey Club have a duty to warn breeders, owners and horsemen who work with today’s Thoroughbreds?

“In the end, it will become clear like so many things after the fact,” said Winand.

At 4”45 pm today, HRI received an email from The Jockey Club president, Jim Gagliano stating:

“John and Mark –

I read with great interest the article of April 3, 2019 Mutant Gene Causes Horse Bleeding and Breakdowns at http://www.horseraceinsider.com/HRI-Feature/comments/04032019-mutant-gene-causes-horse-bleeding-and-breakdowns/.

In the article, conclusions from research that had yet to be published in peer-reviewed journals were cited as, “Horses that test positive for WFFS should not be allowed to race; they are ticking time bombs.” We find this type of reporting disturbing because (i) it appears to be based upon evidence that no one has had the benefit of assessing the credibility and (ii) it is written to create an incendiary impact given the proximity to the recent spate of racing and training fatalities at Santa Anita Park.

Based upon consultation with our subject matter experts at the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of California Davis, the test for the mutation referenced is principally recommended for all Warmblood/Sport Horse populations http://www.vgl.ucdavis.edu/services/horse/WFFS.php. They indicate the incidence of carriers in the population of Sport Horses to be approximately 9-11% and that the defect attributed to this mutation requires two copies to demonstrate symptoms.

In contrast to the work cited in your article, equine genetics experts indicate that in the Thoroughbred, “the investigation on breed distribution of this mutation is ongoing.” This statement would imply that the frequency and risk of this mutation in the Thoroughbred is currently unknown.

Unfortunately, that did not seem to affect the decision to rely upon data that has yet to see the light of day as if it were on par with credible, peer-reviewed findings that have withstood critical review by a panel of subject matter experts. Based upon responses from equine genetics experts to the article, it would appear that the results you have cited are speculative at best and false at worst. We suggest you correct it.

Unless and until a peer-reviewed journal article results, we would suggest a disclaimer indicating that neither the data nor the conclusions have been reviewed for accuracy and that any opinions expressed are that of the author.

A copy of the letter we are sending to the researcher will follow.

Please contact us if you have any questions or comments.

Jim”


© 2019 Mark Berner, HorseRaceInsider.com

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, March 26, 2019


Bleeders: It’s All in the Families


By Mark Berner

Thoroughbred races often produce unexpected results, sometimes shocking ones. Within three minutes on Saturday, two extreme and contrasting scenarios played out at Aqueduct in New York and at Fair Grounds in New Orleans.

Workaholic, racing without Lasix, the anti-bleeder medication, took down first prize in the Cicada Stakes at the Big A to the tune of $75.50. Minutes later, Serengeti Empress, the 3-10 favorite in the Fair Ground Oaks, pulled up, was eased across the finish line, and returned bleeding “through Lasix” from the nostrils.

On the West Coast and throughout the industry, the debate about the use of race-day Lasix rages on. There should be no dispute. A horse that bleeds is unsound and an unsound horse should not run on race-day, with or without medication.

Anyone who says that racing a bleeder on Lasix is best for the horse is telling a lie. Stopping on a bleeder and giving it time to heal is what’s best for the horse. Everything else is horse pucky.

Leaders of racing organizations worldwide applauded Belinda Stronach’s call to end race-day medication. However, some of the jurisdictions that do not permit race-day Lasix do allow it for training.

Many US horses that race with Lasix are getting ready to run in Dubai on Saturday. Some may be doing so on “fake Lasix,” clinically known as Therapeutic Plasma Concentrations of Epsilon Aminocaproic Acid, or Tranexamic Acid. Sometimes these drugs are used separately, sometimes together in a cocktail.

British trainer Nicky Henderson, during a 2009 hearing for administering the anti-bleeder medication Tranexamic Acid, said that “plenty of trainers” use the banned medication.

(Better and undetectable anti-bleeder medications probably have been developed in the decade since).

Something to consider: All of the horses that run abroad without Lasix are automatically permitted to get back on their Lasix program when they return to race in this country, no matter how well they run elsewhere.

In 1987, when Alysheba was making his bid for a Triple Crown, Lasix was illegal in New York. Jack Van Berg’s colt was on Lasix when he won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. But he finished fourth, beaten 14 lengths by Bet Twice in the Belmont Stakes.

''I'm sick and tired of hearing about Lasix,'' Van Berg said at the time. ''I don't think it had anything to do with him losing the Belmont.” While Alysheba did run well in some races without it, the record shows he certainly raced better on it.

A World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) study published in the British Journal of Pharmacology states that diuretics are banned in all sports (except for US horseracing) because it can cause rapid weight loss and act as masking agents to hide the effects of other prohibited substances, both in and out of competition.

Last year, Major League Baseball suspended Robinson Cano for 80 games when he tested positive for Lasix. MLB rules don’t forbid Lasix, but if MLB determines a player was using it as a masking agent, the drug triggers a positive test; that’s why MLB gave Cano “days.”

“There isn't a huge history referencing bleeding. Generally the desire [is] to conceal, rather than reveal. [Bleeding] has [little] impact unless it is a major horse that bled very conspicuously,” said Alan Porter of Pedigree Consultants Inc.

According to Porter’s research, Flying Childers, a foal of 1715, is generally regarded as the first truly great racehorse of the Thoroughbred era.

But Flying Childers was not a great sire and his progeny did not continue into the present day except through Messenger, a dominant line in Standardbreds, and also through the Tennessee Walker, via a horse called Shales in the Hackney.

Flying Childers had a brother foaled the following year called Bartlet’s or “Bleeding” Childers. For obvious reasons he never raced but his affliction notwithstanding, he was a much better sire.

Bartlet's Childers was one of the earliest champion sires of the breed. A descendent of the Darley Arabian, he sired Squirt, who begat Maske, the sire of the great Eclipse, the dominant sire line of today’s Thoroughbreds. He has a presence in the male-line of about 95% of the breed. He has also sired several foundation mares.

The other founding ancestor that is recorded as a bleeder was Herod (1766), who reportedly lost the Great Subscription Purse at York due to breaking a blood vessel in his lungs.

Herod's dam was by Blaze, a son of Flying Childers. Anytime Herod and Eclipse crossed in a pedigree, combining Bleeding Childers with Flying Childers, the assumption was that the bleeding had a heritable component, perhaps a recessive for that trait.

Eclipse and Herod, combined with in the first three generations of several early English classic winners, Herod (25%) and Eclipse (13%) are the largest contributors to the genetic make-up of the breed, both with bleeders close up in their pedigree.

Another well-known bleeder was 1867 Epsom Derby winner Hermit. He was the champion sire in England for seven straight years and was hugely influential. He had 50 crosses of Herod and 29 of Eclipse in his first nine generations. A lot of those are through horses that have Herod and Eclipse combined in their pedigrees.

A look at modern-day horses, where Hermit is still within 10 generations, finds that Northern Dancer had 29 crosses and Mr. Prospector 24.

Until Secretariat, Northern Dancer’s 2-minutes was the fastest in Kentucky Derby history. Along with Mr. Prospector, Northern Dancer became the bedrock of North American breeding and the progenitor of breed-shaping stallions worldwide.

Trainers in the US for a long time have turned to Lasix to tackle the problem of bleeding: Northern Dancer was “first-time Lasix” for his record-breaking Derby run in 1964.

One can posit that the genetic component of bleeders was pretty much 'baked in' early in the breed. Breeders have continued to use stallions that have sired top runners, irrespective of the offspring’s propensity to bleed.

If the industry goes on masking the negative impact of bleeding with medication and utilizing breeding stock that otherwise would not make effective runners, we are going to continue perpetuating these genetic elements.

Bleeders have been in the breed since the 1700's and we have bred for it because it was carried by a great stallion & his sons that produced fast horses. But that doesn’t mean racing can’t choose not to if it wants. In the long term, the industry needs to breed the bleeders out of the gene pool.

© Mark Berner, HorseRaceInsider.com, 2019

Written by Mark Berner

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Tuesday, March 05, 2019


Thoroughbred Deaths and the Enemy Within


By Mark Berner

ELMONT, MAR 5, 2019--A protest scheduled for last weekend at Santa Anita Park, where 20 horses died in racing or training related incidents since its prime meet began DEC 26, was canceled by the organization that urged this call to action--People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, aka PETA.

PETA has “no problem with the racetrack,” said Kathy Guillermo, Senior Vice President, Investigative, Legal & Corporate Cases Media Office and a 30-year veteran of the organization. “PETA’s problem is with the trainers and medication.”

Of greater significance, those tethered to the sport should know this: “The goal of abolishing racing has been removed from the organization's mission statement and website,” Guillermo indicated.

On Sunday, Santa Anita cancelled Thursday’s racing, five days in advance due to impending stormy weather. Nearly a foot of rain has fallen in SoCal over the past two months. The track plans an 11-race card when it resumes racing Friday.

With PETA watching, The Stronach Group apparently decided to err in favor of caution.

A feared protagonist, it should be noted that PETA did not even have a racing agenda until Eight Belles broke down after finishing second to Big Brown in the 2008 Kentucky Derby.

The organization’s new mission seems to be that horseracing should clean its own house. As Walt Kelly parodied Commodore Perry in Pogo, “We have met the enemy and it is us." Guillermo agrees: “Horseracing is its own worst enemy.”


Santa Anita’s one-mile main track, closed for training two days last week, has been proclaimed “one hundred percent ready,” by Mick Peterson, PhD, a soil and safety expert from the University of Kentucky’s Agricultural Equine Programs. Peterson evaluates soil samples from Santa Anita on a monthly basis.

In addition to soil sampling and a thorough examination of the track’s cushion, pad and base, Peterson employed ground-penetrating radar to ensure uniform consistency throughout the entire racing surface.

Tim Ritvo, TSG Chief Operating Officer, is focused on the issue. “We consider the safety and security of the athletes who race at our facilities, both human and equine, to be our top priority. All industry stakeholders including our company must be held accountable, and we are committed to doing just that.”

Toward that end, track representatives has been meeting with PETA, pledging to take definitive steps including extending the review of medication records to horses in training—and not just before races.

Research sponsored by the California Horse Racing Board shows why horses break down and found that the fault lies with the trainers and veterinarians who drug horses with a cocktail of anti-inflammatories, painkillers, sedatives and more to keep them running when they should be recuperating.

Since this practice masks soreness and injury, these injured horses are the most vulnerable to broken bones. Horses who require medication should not be anywhere near a racetrack.

PETA believes that horseracing has innumerable problems and, at bare minimum, all medications should be banned for at least one week before racing or serious training, effectively preventing lame horses from suffering further harm.

Meetings between PETA and Santa Anita officials are scheduled to continue in the coming days.

Rick Baedeker, Executive Director of the CHRB, told Guillermo--and also confirmed by CHRB Equine Medical Director Rick Arthur to The Jockey Club--that “90 percent of breakdowns occur with horses that have pre-existing conditions.” Drugs mask those conditions even from the expert eyes of pre-race veterinarian examination.

The Jockey Club has an Equine Injury Data Base, skewed because its statistics are based on injuries that resulted in fatalities within 72 hours from the race date. Statistics are for official Thoroughbred races but exclude steeplechase races. Apparently, The Jockey Club believes that not all Thoroughbreds are created equal.

Training injuries at Santa Anita resulting in death this season have not been included, nor have two “non-racing/non-training” mortalities. Consequently, the study does not represent complete, truthful findings, choosing instead to err on the side good public relations.

Statistics from another animal rights group, HorseRacingWrongs.com, on FEB 27 from President Patrick Battuello uncovered the fact 22 racehorses died at Santa Anita at the current meet according to the latest Stewards Minutes: 12 horses died in races, seven on dirt, five on turf, and eight died while dirt training. Two were considered non-racing/non-training events.

A small but boisterous crowd of about a dozen protestors representing horseracingwrongs.com, were outside Santa Anita on Sunday, chanting and carrying signs with slogans that derided racing.

Unlike PETA, HorseRacingWrongs mission is to shutter all of horseracing. To that end, Battuello has documented thousands of Thoroughbred horse deaths dating back to 2014.

Conversely, Kathy Guillermo, nee Snow, grew up a horse lover not unlike many Midwestern girls in the 1960s. From Rolla, Missouri, she began to go racing with her uncle at River Downs in Cincinnati at the age of eight.

The youngster was much more interested seeing the horses walk around the paddock ring than watching the races. Later, she began going to the races at Cahokia Downs in St. Louis, tagging along with her hunter-jumper friends who purchased Thoroughbred horses after the races.

Guillermo rode hunter-jumpers and owned one before leaving for college in California. After graduating she worked at an animal shelter but returned to the racetrack in her late twenties when she met her husband Emil, a horseplayer and college schoolmate of Steven Crist.

The Guillermos went to Bay Meadows every weekend and occasionally to Del Mar in the summer. Guillermo began to notice that there were more breakdowns than usual and said it took a while for her to make the association between medication use and breakdowns.

Once she made the connection, Guillermo stopped going to the races in 1988.

The following year she began to work for PETA, originally hired to head-up its cosmetics-testing campaign. In 1993, she authored “Monkey Business: The Disturbing Case That Launched the Animal Rights Movement (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).”

Guillermo has been in constant contact TSG President Mike Rogers throughout this difficult time. There was an errant report regarding a formal meeting of the two groups today but Guillermo said Monday that the conversation between herself and Rogers will continue.

“I have a great deal of respect for Mike Rogers,” Guillermo told HRI. “Mostly, I want to know what is going on and what they can do about it. Either the CHRB or Santa Anita has to deal appropriately with the issue of pre-existing injuries. Specifically, they all have to look at the trainers of the horses that have died.”

Guillermo grew up a horse person and there probably is no one at PETA who has a better understanding of horseracing. At present, she is horseracing’s best and only friend at PETA.

But when horses die because U.S. horsemen and regulators steadfastly refuse to change its medication policies, even its friends will find the sport's future indefensible and unsustainable.

© Copyright 2019 Mark Berner, HorseRaceInsider.com


Written by Mark Berner

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