LEXINGTON, Ky. (WHAS11) – Acceleration, anticipation, and--for some--elation. That’s the payoff of Spring at Keeneland.
It’s where champions are made.
“This is the gold standard, standard,” Bob Elliston, the Sales VP at Keeneland Racing, said.
And outside the rails of the Keeneland racetrack, a blistering pace in another high stakes race, Thoroughbred horse auctions. In this race you must finish last to win a future champion.
“We sell about 30 horses an hour,” Elliston said.
“The Derby is a big focal point of everybody's program,” Liam O’Rourke, Director of Stallion Sales for WinStar Farm, said.
But before the fast-paced horse auction, there is a lot of examination that goes on at the barns.
“That's the one kind of horse that everybody wants to have is a Derby horse,” Liam O’Rourke said.
Being thorough with these Thoroughbreds increases the odds for buyers willing to gamble upwards of millions on a horse.
“There's a lot of measurements, we're looking at their overall size, their athleticism, their balance,” O’Rourke said.
That's all on the outside while taking a look on the inside, X-rays or radiographs provide a better picture of a horse's condition, which is also part of the Conditions of Sale at Keeneland.
“The density of their bone, the angles of their limbs,” O’Rourke explains. “Ultimately you gotta look at the whole horse as one animal, and kind of see it for the athlete that it is or may become.”
In 1996, Keeneland established the repository, storing 36-digital X-rays of each horse up for auction.
“I like the repository system, I like the fact that not all buyers have to take their own X-rays, if a buyer has an additional question or wants an ultrasound of a horse, they can come by the barn and do it anytime and I think it really helps facilitate trade,” Bradley Weisbord, Elite Sales BSW Bloodstock Founder told us.
And depending on their age--yearlings, 2-year-olds, or horses of racing age--equine veterinarians have a strict window leading up to the sale in which to take x-rays.
“If you're a bad actor and you don't play by the rules, you won't be at Keeneland,” Elliston said.
But ten veterinarians with the Hagyard Equine Medical Institute admitted in testimony to the Kentucky Board of Veterinary Examiners(KBVE) they misdated horse radiographs by several days. Which means they X-ray'd outside the required sale window and then changed the date to reflect the images were inside the window.
It was going on for decades, according to testimony before the board, and the excuses given last year to the KBVE varied. The answers included changing dates made things more convenient and vacations possible for the veterinarians executing the X-rays.
“He wouldn't have been able to go on his family's ski vacation, so in that instance, he changed them by up to a week,” Mason Miller, an attorney, said.
Attorney Mason Miller filed a class action lawsuit accusing Hagyard, as well as the firm handling its radiograph software, of fraud.
“This is a list of all the horses Mr. Swearingen purchased,” Miller said.
Tom Swearingen is the primary plaintiff and Miller believes, based on the testimony about the length of time the misdating had been happening, there are many other horse buyers out there who could make a claim of being defrauded.
“Had they known that they were essentially playing Russian Roulette with the repository,” Miller said. “They wouldn't have bought a horse in the first place,” Miller said.
Miller and his partners questioned several Hagyard horse doctors last June in another lawsuit.
For the record, Miller's firm does represent other vets fighting non-compete contracts with Hagyard so they could leave the practice – including one vet that admitted engaging in misdating as an intern working at the instruction of others.
“Never had one single horse sale overturned on a report that I've provided,” Dr. Spirito, one of Haygard Veterinaries said during testimony in an evidentiary hearing in the first lawsuit in the summer of 2018.
Although admitting to misdating X-rays, the veterinarians deny they ever manipulated radiographs in any way to hide problems with a horse.
The KBVE fined Dr. Michael Spirito $25,000, Dr. Micheal Hore $25,000 as well, and handed out other fines to other Hagyard veterinarians ranging from a thousand bucks to $15,000.
However, the oversight Board didn't suspend their licenses or put any of them on probation.
“That doesn't make sense to me,” Miller said, shaking his head.
Attorney Miller claims the KBVE made its conclusions without even looking at a single X-ray, including the conclusion the board found no evidence that any radiograph inaccurately reflected a horse's condition before sale.
WHAS11 wanted the Board to explain, as well as give an explanation on how it's not a conflict of interest that a Hagyard vet--who also admitted to misdating himself--is actually a board member.
The KBVE declined our request for an on-camera interview but responded to written questions. The board chairman wrote KBVE conducted a thorough investigation, and that board members with a conflict of interest in certain matters must recuse themselves.
The chair, however, would not comment on several other questions, especially the one asking if the board ever reviewed any X-rays.
“I want to know what happened inside the KBVE, I want to know what the deliberations were,” Miller said.
In an emailed letter, Attorney Michael Casey, representing several of the Hagyard veterinarians being sued, defended the reputation of his clients as well as the integrity of their radiographs.
Casey also attached articles which quoted industry experts essentially stating that misdating was no big deal.
“I think it was a lot to do about nothing,” Bradley Weisbord, BSW Bloodstock Founder with Elite Sales, said.
“Rules could have been broken, but it wasn't a big deal,” Weisbord said.
When a horse fetches millions, it is a big financial deal.
“I understand that the dates were wrong, but I don't believe it really defrauded the buyers.”
Mason Miller is determined to develop a bigger picture than just misdated X-rays.
“Will this turn the industry upside down?” John asked Miller.
“If it doesn't, then the industry doesn't belong here,” Miller replied.