Lexington, KY. – Sept. 22, 2020 – As any equestrian understands, horse ownership comes with its fair share of difficulties, especially when it comes to their horse’s health. Whether it is driving the trailer across the state to receive expert opinions for an injury or spending months with tedious rehabbing procedures, or even a misdiagnosis of a mystery alignment due to lack of technology, the success of your riding goals relies heavily on your horse’s health. Fortunately there is an organization dedicated solely on advancing medical opportunities through funding cutting edge veterinary research — The Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation (GJCRF).
Based in the heart of horse country in Lexington, Kentucky, the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation may sound like an organization focused solely in the Thoroughbred racing industry. In reality, the Foundation is a leading non-profit charitable organization that funds research for horses of all breeds at top universities worldwide. Founded in 1940, The Grayson Foundation was named as a recognition of Admiral Cary Grayson, President Woodrow Wilson’s personal physician, a chairman of the American Red Cross and avid horse racing owner. He provided the formative concepts of the Foundation and was passionate about raising $100,000 for equine medical research. Rather than carry out their own scientific research, the Foundation’s first grant was given to the University of Pennsylvania to continue their research of moon blindness.
In 1984, the Foundation merged with The Jockey Club in order to combine their efforts and expand their funding opportunities. The original goal was to disperse $100,000 annually in grants to selected research projects, but over time the GJCRF has grown to provide over $1 million in grants in recent years. While owners know their horse’s health is a number one priority, funding for scientific research declines each year.
“We’ve seen federal funding decrease every year from the equine spectrum and with COVID-19 hitting, we know universities are going to see even more budget cuts. It is unbelievable how important private funding is to equine research,” explained Jamie Haydon, president of the GJCRF.
With extensive experience in the racing industry, Haydon of Versailles, Kentucky, joined The Jockey Club in 2008, initially overseeing daily operations of the Foundation while supporting the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit and The Jockey Club’s Thoroughbred Safety Committee. When the GJCRF President Ed Bowen retired in 2018, Haydon took the reins.
“We’ve always viewed the Foundation as very important to all horses,” Haydon continued. “When you hear Grayson-Jockey Club you instantly associate it with Thoroughbred Racing, but all of us that love these animals have to bind together to fund this important research. Disease and injury doesn’t come up to a horse and ask what breed it is. Injuries happen to all horses, and all breeds have been the benefactors of our research funds.”
The GJCRF does not have an alliance with any particular university or research center, which opens the door to funding significant research projects regardless of where they are conducted around the world. Relying on donations to fund approximately 15 to 20 grants a year, the Foundation’s money has helped top scientists and veterinarians pave the way for exciting new medical advancements and technologies.
“We take applications from all over the world and we typically receive between 50-70 applications each October,” Haydon said. “If the science is good and it has a large impact on the equine species, we fund it. For each of the projects we fund, we expect one peer-review published paper and we are really proud of our publishing rate with over 300-peer reviewed journals since 1999. The reason we are able to produce that many papers is the work we put into selecting the projects.”
The application process for researchers seeking funding is complex. Following the October 1 deadline, the applications are extensively reviewed by the GJCRF’s 32-person Research Advisory Committee. By following the RAC scoring, each application is evaluated based on their scientific approach, the feasibility, the impact it would have on equines and the overall impression of the grant. Since 1983, the GJCRF has provided more than $29.1 million to fund 384 projects at 45 universities in North America and overseas.
From stem cell treatments to advanced imaging diagnostic technology, the research funded by the GJCRF has trickled down to consumers to help a wide variety of horses. For example, the GJCRF created the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory which originally was designed for racetracks to have their synthetic, dirt or turf surfaces analyzed for safety improvements. The footing is examined not only in a lab but also with an elaborate hoof tester machine that records footfalls, moisture content and load bearing capabilities, as well as 23 different characteristics of how the hoof interacts with the surface. Experts in the equestrian community saw the necessity of this applicable technology and it expanded the biomechanical track tester into the sport horse disciplines — it was even used to test the footing in the arenas at the 2012 London Olympic Games.
“A lot of the research we see may have been science that worked well in humans or other animal species. When we can do good research, it helps all horses. If there is not funding for this type of research, advancements do not occur,” Haydon said. “There is also a lot of crossover between the different equestrian sports. No matter what discipline you are doing, you are going to have some kind of joint performance issue. For example, dressage horses are usually older at the most advanced level compared to Thoroughbreds when they are most active as 2 to 5-year-olds. There may be different ages, but all horses experience joint issues at some point whether its common joint inflammation, bruising, or injuries with the suspensory apparatus.”
One of the most recent research success stories coming out of the GJCRF that is already making an impact to dressage horse owners is the development of the equine Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scanner. Pioneered by the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, in collaboration with LONGMILE Veterinary Imaging, the PET scan allows vets to scan the front and hind legs, especially the fetlocks, while the horse remains standing. Prior to this technology, horses would need to be under general anesthesia for bone scans, which is a significant health risk and financial undertaking. With the PET scan, vets are able to localize the abnormality to a specific area of a bone with the horse under light sedation while standing and it provides images of bone bruising. The machine is now on the backside of Santa Anita [Race Track] and it is being used by sport horse vets in Southern California. According to the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, over 65 horses have been scanned by the machine since installation in December 2019. The University of Pennsylvania also received a PET scan and GJCRF hopes other veterinary practices will see the benefit of the technology so more horses will have access.
Making A Difference One Sample At A Time
Dr. Lauren Schnabel, a researcher at NC State University, has been performing ground-breaking research with the help of the GJCRF for over ten years, and first began her involvement with GJCRF while working on her PhD at Cornell University with Dr. Lisa Fortier. As an Associate Professor of Equine Orthopedic Surgery in the Department of Clinical Sciences at NCSU College of Veterinary Medicine and an Associate Director of the Comparative Medicine Institute at NCSU, Dr. Schnabel has spearheaded numerous projects in the quest for better medicine for sport horses.
“The Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation funded some of my PhD research and their support for some of my now independent research and my graduate students has been amazing,” Dr. Schnabel explained. “Their support is huge – they have very generous grant funding for projects. Many foundations only have smaller amounts available, but GJCRF makes it feasible to do large studies, including in vivo studies, which are critical to clinical application. Their support has been tremendous in terms of what we’ve been able to accomplish in the laboratory.”
Dr Schnabel spent time around racehorses growing up, sparking her interest in horses before going on to ride as a hunter/jumper. As an equestrian herself who recently switched disciplines to dressage with her own Lusitano, Dr. Schnabel knows the importance of developing better treatment options for things like tendon injuries, which plague so many horses no matter what their sport.
“We recently completed a GJCRF project on a novel therapy for treating infected joints in horses,” she said. “These infections can be devastating — we lose a lot of horses to joint infections if we can’t resolve the infection or if they develop laminitis in their opposite limb from being so sore due to the infection. Even if we are able to resolve the infection, many horses will develop arthritis afterwards from the damage the joint has incurred which can prevent them from returning to performance. We tested a novel therapeutic in a large study funded by GJCRF and had excellent results. We are just getting ready to submit that manuscript, but we are already using the therapy in our hospital with great results. We’re really excited about it because it has the potential to help a lot of horses.”
Dr. Schnabel also noted the important research in using stem cells for healing that they have been able to continue with help of the GJCRF.
“Our GJCRF research project funded this year that we started in June is continuing our tendon stem cell research,” she explained. “For many years, we’ve been looking at stem cells for tendon healing and the use of autologous versus allogeneic stem cells, but what this proposal examines is when is the best time to treat tendon lesions with stem cells. We have a lot of research that says stem cells are really important to tendon healing and we’ve significantly reduced the re-injury rate on tendons by treating them with stem cells, but could we do even better if we were using them in a more appropriate time frame? Stem cells are very dependent on the signals they are receiving from the injury environment, and from our preliminary data it seems that they may actually need an active inflammatory environment to stimulate them to secrete factors that would be even more beneficial for healing.”
“I can’t stress enough how important GJCRF funding has been for not only my career but that of my graduate students,” Dr. Schnabel said. “We’ve had direct results from the studies they have funded for us so far which have allowed us to advance our research, and most importantly to help as many horses as we can which is of course our goal.”
As treatment therapies and medicine for sport horses continue to develop, funding from foundations like the GJCRF are more vital than ever to give researchers and veterinarians a leg up in helping more horses stay healthy and sound throughout their careers. To learn more about the GJCRF or to donate to the 501(c)(3), please visit https://www.grayson-jockeyclub.org.