Champion trainer scanning his own horses to avoid Melbourne Cup scratchings

Key points

  • To ensure horse welfare, Racing Victoria requires all international horses that race in the state and all Melbourne Cup nominees to have a CT scan.
  • For Cup nominees the scan is held in the days before the race, and has led to some high-profile last-minute scratchings.
  • But champion trainer Chris Waller is concerned that horses are sometimes being unnecessarily sidelined by the protocol.
  • He believes some of the imperfections being detected by the scans are long-running issues that have not hindered the animals, nor pose a risk to their health. 
  • His solution is to have pre-emptive baseline scans conducted months in advance on the horses he hopes become Cup nominees.

Champion racehorse trainer Chris Waller has begun scanning his potential Melbourne Cup horses because of fears that Racing Victoria’s mandatory CT scans will not only deter entry of quality horses from Australia’s greatest race, but permanently end the careers of fit horses.

All international horses that come to Victoria to race and all Melbourne Cup nominees are required by Racing Victoria to have a CT scan.

By running preliminary scans, Waller – who trained champion Winx and 2021 Melbourne Cup winner Verry Elleegant – wants to establish a physical profile of each of his horses, including their minor, long-standing imperfections.

Vets inspect horses at Werribee on the eve of last year’s Melbourne Cup.Credit:Justin McManus

Waller believes the baseline scan will show the difference between legitimate fresh health concerns and pre-existing blemishes that pose no threat to the animal, thus preventing unnecessary scratchings on the eve of the Cup, such as the “gut-wrenching” withdrawal of Durston from last year’s race. Waller believed Durston, who had won the Caulfield Cup, was fit and sound.

“Our basic belief at the moment is that, while everyone’s still learning about the CT scans, we just want to be proactive and not have too many surprises close to the race,” Waller told The Age.

Waller was devastated when Durston was ruled out of the Cup on vets’ advice after Racing Victoria’s compulsory CT scans found a blemish in the horse’s distal limbs, which their international imaging panel believed put the horse at a heightened risk of injury.

That was despite Australia’s most prolific trainer believing his horse was fit and sound enough to run in the Melbourne Cup, having days earlier beaten Gold Trip in a thrilling Caulfield Cup.

Gold Trip went on to win the Melbourne Cup, 12 months after vets scratched the import from the 2021 Cox Plate because of lameness, despite his trainers Ciaron Maher and David Eustace being adamant the horse was fit to run.

Waller said he feared fit horses could be barred from racing based on CT scans that can’t distinguish the age of the blemishes.

“It’s a reason why anything [horse] that we think we are possibly going to run in a Melbourne Cup, we should be scanning them now, so we’ve got a baseline to compare against,” he said.

“My only advice is, ‘get your baseline scans done’. It’s pretty non-invasive, and then you’re not going to have a surprise in Cup week, like we did last year because that was gut-wrenching.”

Caulfield Cup winner Durston was scratched from the Melbourne Cup after failing a CT scan.Credit:Getty Images

Francesco Guardi and Waterville are two horses Waller has already scanned with an eye to the Cup in November.

Prominent owner John O’Neill said racehorse owners would stop nominating for the Melbourne Cup for fear that their million-dollar horses would be scratched based on bone imperfections that may be years old, jeopardising the quality of Australia’s most recognisable race and opening the door for Racing NSW boss Peter V’landys to launch his own $8 million race in Sydney for stayers under more lenient conditions.

At least three horses failed Racing Victoria’s mandatory CT scans in the lead-up to last year’s Melbourne Cup under strict measures implemented over the past two spring racing carnivals to prevent further deaths in the race. Anthony Van Dyck died in the 2020 Melbourne Cup, the seventh horse – all internationals – to die in the Cup in as many years.

Le Don De Vie – also part-owned by O’Neill – failed its CT scan in October and has not received a veterinary clearance to return to racing, despite connections believing the horse is fit and sound. The CT scan found a mark on one of the seven-year-old’s bones, so Racing Victoria’s international imaging panel ruled him out from competing in the Cup.

He was spelled and scanned again in January, and the same three experts determined the horse’s condition had deteriorated, therefore maintaining their position that Le Don De Vie would remain at an elevated risk of injury if he raced again.

According to new research published in January in the Scientific Reports, bone lesions often form in response to damaging “loading” of the bone, such as from impact during exercise. Lesions often precede stress fractures, which are the most common cause of racehorse deaths, according to the report.

But O’Neill said a separate MRI scan conducted by the Maher-Eustace team found the bone mark to be inactive. O’Neill claimed the only option Racing Victoria had given connections to continue the horse’s career was “to drill a hole in its leg and put a screw in”, despite O’Neill’s belief the mark is historic.

“If we hadn’t nominated Le Don De Vie for the Melbourne Cup, he would have had 10 starts since then,” O’Neill said.

“He would probably be running in the Australian Cup this Saturday.

“The ramifications of putting a screw in a horse’s leg, the horse maybe dies on the table, the horse maybe gets infected in the bone because it’s got a foreign object sitting in its bone.

“The scenario we have at the moment is we have no recourse. The horse is not allowed to race in Victoria, so we nominated in South Australia … and then we got a notification the night before the horse was being pulled out because the horse was not allowed to race in Victoria.”

Leading horse trainer Chris Waller is getting in early by having CT scans conducted on his Melbourne Cup contenders.Credit:Getty

Racing Victoria’s policy regarding failed CT scans calls for horses to either rest, have treatment or both, before proving their fitness to return to racing, thus Le Don De Vie remains sidelined. The Age contacted South Australia and NSW stewards regarding their stance on Le Don De Vie but did not receive a response.

O’Neill said there should be an appeals process, to allow for an open discussion between Racing Victoria’s experts and stable vets, so owners could challenge scan results on horses they believe to be fit and sound. He added that owners would otherwise stop buying imports to run in the Cup.

Numerous internationals were prevented from travelling to Australia last year due to failed scans, leaving overseas trainers disillusioned. Instead, a number of foreign trainers sent horses to Sydney for their autumn races.

2021 Cox Plate winner State Of Rest was blocked from returning to Melbourne in 2022, after the Irish-trained galloper failed a CT scan. His 2021 scan results were used by Racing Victoria’s imaging panel as a baseline for the 2022 scan, which returned fresh blemishes. He was subsequently retired to stud.

While heavy safety measures over the past two years have made the race fatality-free, O’Neill believes Racing Victoria has gone too far.

“It’s the best race, I think, in the world,” said O’Neill, who part-owns this year’s favourite Soulcombe.

“I love the race, we always target it, but we have to play the game very sparingly now because we don’t want our horses barred from racing. We’ve got to find a solution.”

Racing Victoria was contacted for comment and is yet to finalise whether it will make any changes to the safety protocols for the 2023 spring racing carnival.

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