For those veterinarians who have dedicated themselves to treating racehorses, there’s no more fascinating place to work than the backstretch.
For its sheer variety of orthopedic issues, respiratory challenges and assorted other athletic concerns, there’s nothing like a racetrack practice. It’s often high-stakes work, too, with both the animal’s physical well-being and the owner and trainer’s financial well-being at stake. The hours are long and the thanks may be few and far between … but the breed of veterinarian who thrives on the unique pressures of backstretch work wouldn’t have it any other way.
If there’s one thing the average backstretch vet would like to change, though, it’s the challenge of getting paid. Not for nothing has the racetrack developed something of a bad reputation when it comes to addressing invoices on time. For many trainers and owners, the feast-or-famine business of racing horses means that when they have a good week, everyone enjoys the fruits … and when they have a bad week (or month, or year), everyone along the food chain suffers as well.
That can make a racetrack practice a riskier-than-average business proposition for the veterinarian. If treating racehorses is your calling, it’s a reality you have to accept, but that doesn’t mean your hands are tied when it comes to making a living.
We spoke to three busy racetrack veterinarians, each of whom has his own perspective and approach to dealing with billing racing clients. Here’s what they had to say.
Ontario-based veterinarian Brian Van Arem is one of several vets who work the backstretch at Woodbine Racetrack in the west end of Toronto, Ontario. As part of a three-veterinarian practice (McMartin and Associates), about 80 percent of his clientele are Thoroughbred racehorses, with the balance made up of high-performance show horses.
“We do the same type of monthly billing for both types of clients,” he says. “It’s 100 percent true that it’s difficult to collect from racetrack clients. As much as I would like to bill at time of service, it’s not practical because the owners are almost never present.
“Because of the way it’s set up, we are more or less forced to extend credit. We’re stuck with this sort of billing as long as everyone else is doing it; I don’t expect any sort of change to happen unless everyone were to get together on it.
“We definitely carry some bad debt, and it’s more than you would expect of an average practice focused on sport or pleasure horses. We have zero issues with the sport horse clients … but it’s not really what I want to do.
“Over the last year, it has gotten worse,” Van Arem adds, “which I think is just a reflection of the economy. We just try to stay in touch with our clients and work it out.
“It’s a judgment call,” he continues. “You worry about the 10 percent [of clients who prove unreliable]. They abuse our good faith, and the good clients are the ones who end up paying for it. Times are tough, and we’re seeing more of that. But you can never really implement a system that would work for everyone.
“We do charge late fees, and we resort to collection agencies when we have to.”
Van Arem says that one missing element is some support from racing’s regulatory bodies. In his case, that body is the Ontario Racing Commission (ORC). “It would be nice if there was more compliance from the ORC,”
he comments. “We are on our own; there really isn’t anything in the way of sanctions for owners who don’t pay their bills.”
Given that, Van Arem’s practice does screen clients. “Word travels fast on the backstretch. It helps to watch who you work for,” he says.
Twenty-three years on the Belmont backstretch in Elmont, New York, have taught Dr. Michael Galvin that information-gathering on owners, labor-intensive and time-consuming though it may be, is an essential part of survival in an increasingly challenging economic climate.
Like Van Arem, Galvin, who operates as a solo practitioner at Belmont Park, bills owners monthly and doesn’t expect that to change as long as it is the standard method of billing by track vets. “Everyone’s very independent, so I doubt we’ll ever have any success changing it,” he says.
“Unfortunately, monthly billing is practical, and that’s what people expect. The biggest problem I see in the racing industry now is loss of ownership,” the plain-spoken veterinarian continues. “People drop out, they die, they retire, they go broke, or they go to jail. Good ownership is getting pretty scarce here in New York, and that’s making it harder for us to survive, as well.”
Galvin points out that billing owners can become a challenge when several owners or a syndicate is involved. “Sometimes you have to chop the bill up by percentages, and you depend on information from the trainer about who owns what percentage. It can get complicated. And of course there are always some owners who pay better
Like his colleagues, he finds that racing clients are tougher to persuade to pay on time than his minority of pleasure- and performance-horse clients. “The average return now is 60 days or so, and you have to budget for that,” he says. “It has gotten more difficult over the last few years. My bad debt is increasing.
“I would love to get a contract up front, but again, no one’s likely to agree to it. We have to rely on the trainers to connect with the owners. It’s a tremendously large part of the business, and you have to work at it. I think chasing clients is one of the hardest things about being a track vet.”
No Easy Living
At Tampa, Florida’s Tampa Bay Downs, Richard Gold, DVM, roams the backstretch from November to May, then spends the off-season doing farm calls. He has been a fixture at Tampa Bay Downs for the past 10 years, and estimates his practice is 96 percent racehorses. “I hire up to three assistants during the racing season, so I’m one of the larger practices there,” he says.
“Some trainers look at their owners’ bills,” he says. “Others don’t; I mail the bill to the owner directly. I’d say 65 percent of my bills get mailed out, with the rest handed to the trainers at the racetrack.
“In general, backstretch folks do want to pay their bills,” Gold says. “The problem is that it can be very expensive to maintain a racehorse, and the feast-or-famine thing can catch up with them.
“I will sometimes change my recommendations for treatment depending
on the financial justification for the horse,” he says. “A claimer might merit one level of financial commitment, a stakes horse another.”
“I am fine with payments if someone is struggling. Often I don’t even charge a late fee. But if someone doesn’t pay at all–you do take it personally, because you have an investment in the equipment, the training, the time, the knowledge you provide.”
There are some pitfalls to watch for in racetrack practice, says Gold. “When the race meet ends, that can be a time to get caught up with people. But it can also be a time when the horse leaves the track, for breeding or to race elsewhere. There are owners who’ll take the opportunity to remove the horse, stiff the trainer and then stiff you, too.”
He notes that in his municipality, Hillsborough County, small claims court is always an option for bills that remain unpaid. “If you get a judgment in your favour, it will influence that owner’s ability to get a future license,” he notes.
There is another way a client’s horses may disappear at the track: They may be claimed. “It’s something unique we have to deal with,” Gold acknowledges. “I try to keep my records up-to-date so I know which horses have gone where. And I look at the [race] charts every night and keep track of each stable’s results. That way people know you’re interested.
How do you avoid ending up on the hook for large sums of money? “I think you just have to keep on top of it,” says Gold. “I have to say the vet who gets stuck with a big unpaid bill has himself to blame, at least partially. I used to work for Dan Wilson, DVM, at Northfield Park, and he told me that part of our job as veterinarians is to make sure people don’t step in a hole they can’t get out of.
“Of course, if it’s an emergency, you treat the horse,” he continues. “The horse comes first, always.”