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Keeping Watch
Wednesday, March 20, 2013 - by Bill Eichenberger

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Before July, Dr. Dionne Benson helped care for horses one at a time, some of the time.


Now she helps all of the horses, all of the time.


Benson became a doctor of veterinary medicine in the spring of 2011 and served an internship at the Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital through June 2012. She became the executive director and COO of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium in July.


“If I'd gone straight into practice after I'd become a vet, I would have been able to help one, maybe two horses a day,” she said. “With the RMTC I can help racehorses in North America and the racing industry in general."


The consortium is a non-profit with 25 stakeholders -- including the American Association of Equine Practitioners, the American Quarter Horse Association, Breeders Cup, Ltd., the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, the Hambletonian Society, the Jockey Club and the U.S. Trotting Association. Its mission is “to develop and promote uniform rules, policies and testing standards, at the national level, and to coordinate research and educational programs to ensure the integrity of racing and the health and welfare of racehorses and participants.”


USTA/Mark Hall Photo
Dr. Benson was part of a medication panel at the 2013 Harness Racing Congress.
Mike Tanner, executive vice president and CEO of the U.S. Trotting Association, is a member of the consortium's board.


"RMTC is important because it brings together various segments of the horse racing industry to address something that threatens the integrity of all different sorts of racing, and harness racing in particular, and that is the use of prohibited substances," he said. "There aren't a whole lot of things the racing industry as a whole can get together on, but medication and testing are two of them."


Veterinary medicine is Benson’s second full-fledged career. For eight years, she practiced law and served as an adjunct faculty member at the William Mitchell College of Law in Minneapolis. She was an attorney for the National Arbitration Forum and at Larkin, Hoffman, Daly and Lindgren, Ltd.


“At about the six- or seven-year mark you have to ask yourself as an attorney, ‘Do I really love this?’ And for me the answer was, ‘No,’” Benson admitted. “I practiced commercial law and companies were forever fighting over things that never should have been fought over.”


That’s when Benson returned in her mind to a childhood filled with ducks and pigs and horses to ride.


Photo by Stephanie Welsh
Dr. Benson with her current horse, a Thoroughbred rescue named "Hooper."

“I think I always wanted to be a vet, but couldn’t get into veterinary school. I think at the time I was applying to college there were only 23 veterinary schools in North America,” she said. “Honestly, law school turned out to be far easier to get through than veterinary school.”


Tanner said Benson’s experience as a lawyer as well as her veterinary degree and time spent working and learning at Rood & Riddle made her a formidable candidate.


“She has a way of taking complicated scientific issues and breaking them down so that a layman can understand them,” Tanner said. “She asks all the right questions. She’s not distracted by things that aren’t relevant. I’m sure her legal training plays a part in how she does her new job.”


Benson said her first order of business at RMTC is “getting more labs accredited to do testing. The labs are the watchdogs for our industry and if one lab finds a banned substance but another lab fails to do so, then we’re missing an opportunity to help the sport.”


She pointed to 2012’s performance enhancing drug of the season, Dermorphin, called “frog juice” because it is literally squeezed off the backs of South American waxy monkey tree frogs.


“It’s a painkiller with 40 times the effect of morphine,” Benson said. “So a horse that shouldn’t be running can go out there and feel no pain. But pain serves a purpose for the horse. It’s there for a reason.”


According to RMTC, there are 16 labs conducting testing for horse racing, three of which had submitted applications and begun the RMTC Laboratory Accreditation process at the time Dr. Benson was interviewed. At present date, one laboratory (U.C. Davis) has received interim accreditation, two laboratories are in process (Ohio Department of Agriculture Laboratory and the HFL Sport Science - Lexington Laboratory) and one additional laboratory (Truesdail Laboratories) has submitted an application. RMTC has also received a letter of intent to apply for accreditation by Industrial Laboratories.


“I’d like to see five or six more labs accredited in the next year,” Benson said.


In addition to its accreditation program, the RMTC also conducts drug testing research. It has accumulated more than $1.5 million for that purpose and also has raised $450,000 for a three-year post doctoral fellowship program.


“Harness racing in particular has been proactive in identifying the problems they have and dealing with them head on,” Benson said of the consortium’s aggressive goals. “Some of our biggest supporters have come from the harness side of racing.”


The stakes, Benson said, are high.


Photo by Stephanie Welsh
Dr. Benson said that due to her lifelong love of animals, she decided to change careers from law to veterinary medicine.

“If you’ve ever seen a horse break down, well, that’s something a person never forgets as long as they live,” she said. “I know I can remember every one I’ve ever seen. And if that breakdown can be tied back to medication, then it’s something that could have been prevented.”


Benson said the consortium also hopes to coordinate research efforts, not only across North American jurisdictions, but also internationally with the Asian Racing Federation, the European Breeders Fund and the British Horse Racing Authority.


“Because all of our funds are limited it’s important that we don’t do overlapping or redundant research,” she said. “If we’re doing a study, we ask everyone we can think of if they’ve done or plan to do anything similar.”


When she isn’t working on rules or encouraging high standards for testing, you’ll likely find Benson out riding on the weekends.


“Talking about this will make me cry,” she said. “The first horse I ever owned, Zeb, I just had to euthanize. I was very naïve when I bought him. He was so handsome, 16-1/2 hands, which was good because I’m tall, too. He was a 2-year-old ‘ready to ride Western.’ I wanted him for trails and other Western things. But he was far too easily spooked for the trail. So I had to reassess my options and learned to ride English with him. I took dressage lessons.”


She just knew she’d never have another horse after Zeb. 


“But apparently I’m addicted because within a month I was looking for a rescue horse and found one up in Canada,” she said. “His name is Holy Poppi but I call him Hooper. He is the nicest, most willing horse. I jump him a little bit, too.”

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The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.