Equine PET scanner 'a game changer' for Santa Anita trainers

Equine PET scanner 'a game changer' for Santa Anita trainers
Photo: Eclipse Sportswire

Much was expected when a first-of-its-kind positron emission tomography scan machine for horses was introduced in mid-December at Santa Anita Park. Based on the early evidence, it appears much has been delivered.

Santa Anita-based trainer Dan Blacker took to Twitter on Thursday to offer a glimpse into the impact of Santa Anita’s PET scan machine, which was developed at the University of California Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine.

Blacker shared PET scan images taken on the front legs of a horse he trains that had shown signs of “very mild intermittent lameness” in the left front leg after a workout.

While X-rays of the horse’s fetlock joints showed “nothing significant” in terms of injury, a subsequent PET scan image revealed potential problem areas in the left front sesamoid bone.

Officials for Santa Anita unveiled the standing PET scan unit Dec. 13 prior to opening the 2019-2020 winter-spring meet. The Stronach Group, owner of Santa Anita, acquired the machine after committing $500,000 for the cutting-edge technology last March following a spate of equine deaths at the track. 

The primary purpose of the PET scan machine is to detect and diagnose injuries before they become catastrophic. As demonstrated in the example above, it could be achieving that mission.

“It’s an incredible imaging tool in that it is very specific in what it can tell me as a trainer,” Blacker said. “But why I think it’s a game changer is it gives trainers a definitive diagnosis, which previously would not have been possible with other diagnostic tools.”

Dr. Dionne Benson, chief veterinarian for The Stronach Group, noted while the PET Scan machine has offered early promise, there’s still much to be determined on its potential long-range impact given the technology is so new. 

“There’s certainly been individual horses that have been helped by getting a diagnosis on them before any injuries occur,” Benson said. “But there’s still going to be a gray area of what we don’t know.

“As in, does this (activity in the bone) mean something, or does it not mean something in terms of the function of the horse? If something shows up in a certain place, does that mean a horse needs to stop training? So, the question will be, what is something that’s in the normal range and what is not in the normal range?”

Benson said the purchase and installation of the PET scan machine ultimately cost The Stronach Group about $700,000. Trainers are billed around $800 per diagnosis, Benson estimated.

The introduction of the PET scan machine at Santa Anita is particularly important in light of a report by the California Horse Racing Board regarding the rash of equine deaths at Santa Anita Park suffered last winter and spring.

The CHRB report found that of the 23 horse fatalities at Santa Anita to be studied, 21 had shown pre-existing pathology at the site of the fatal injury. The vast majority of these pre-existing conditions were found to be in the fetlock joint with the sesamoid bone being particularly susceptible. 

“The great thing is it picks up on the microfractures before they become a major issue, which prior to this was very difficult to do,” Blacker said. “We as trainers found we were turning horses out to the farm because we were suspicious of a sesamoid fracture, but you didn’t know. They may have been fine to continue racing with a different approach to training.

“So the great thing is it gives you a definitive diagnosis. We see the image so clearly, we know what to do. We know definitely the horse needs to stop training and give time for it to heal.”

In addition to the PET scan machine, Santa Anita also installed a Standing Magnetic Resonance Imaging facility on the backstretch to further diagnose horses.

Blacker said the MRI technology, which was acquired through a fundraising campaign spearheaded by Santa Anita, has proven a particularly helpful tool in diagnosing injuries to soft tissues like tendons and ligaments.

“I’m very grateful to Santa Anita and UC Davis getting these in place,” Blacker said. “There is no doubt in my mind that it’s helping us make the right decisions in terms of planning a horse’s future.”

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