The Horserace Betting Levy Board: 50 years of advances in equine veterinary science, education and practice


The Horserace Betting Levy Board (HBLB) is a statutory body that was established in 1961. Unlike some other non-departmental public bodies, the HBLB receives no central Government grant-in-aid and no National Lottery funding. Instead, it is required by law to collect a statutory levy from the horseracing business of bookmakers and the Tote, which it then distributes for the improvement of horseracing and breeds of horses and for the advancement of veterinary science and education. It is impossible to quantify exactly the impact that HBLB funding has made on equine veterinary science within the UK and worldwide. However, as an indicator of the magnitude of that contribution, 539 of a total of 5816 (9.2%) articles published in Equine Veterinary Journal since its inception in 1968 acknowledged the support of HBLB. In the last 2 years alone HBLB funding was acknowledged in articles addressing cutting edge work topics in a diverse range of subjects as biomechanics (Ferrari et al. 2009; Parsons et al. 2010; Unt et al. 2010), clinical pathology (Rendle et al. 2009), grass sickness (Newton et al. 2010) and reproduction (Wilsher et al. 2009) and including preliminary studies on population demographics which will be invaluable in the event of an outbreak of exotic disease (Robin et al. 2010).

Further evidence of the importance of the HBLB to the Equine Veterinary Journal can be found by examining the CVs of the members of our Editorial Consultants Board: most of the UK-based members has either had their training supported by HBLB, and/or been an investigator or collaborator on research projects supported by the Board. Rob Pilsworth is a member of the HBLB's Veterinary Advisory Committee (VAC) and for transparency, I should also declare that I have been the recipient of research grants and awards to fund both clinical and research scholarships. Furthermore adhering to sound poacher/gamekeeper principles, shortly after I left academia for private practice, the VAC asked me to join its team and in that capacity currently I chair the Thoroughbred Research Consultation Group.

HBLB allocates approximately 20% of its annual veterinary budget to scholarships allowing up to 3 young veterinarians per year to pursue post graduate training either in a specialist clinical field, to Diploma status, or towards a research degree such as PhD. Most of these once-young people go on to senior positions within the world of academia, industry or clinical practice. Generous funding of scholarships aimed at the equine disciplines ensures that the brightest and best graduates can be attracted away from opportunities to study other veterinary species towards the horse. Currently, equine clinical departments in all British Veterinary schools are led by individuals who were supported early in their career by HBLB scholarships or grants; the Royal Veterinary College's Vice-Principal for Teaching, Professor Steven May, is proud of his status as the prototype clinical training scholar before such a thing was invented and of course, the Chief Executive of the Animal Health Trust, Dr Peter Webbon was also an HBLB research scholar.

Veterinary Expenditure for 2009/10 provided over £400,000 towards prevention and control of infectious disease, including supporting the Codes of Practice that are an invaluable reference source and practical guide for equine practitioners on Contagious Equine Metritis, Equine Herpesvirus, Equine Viral Arteritis, and many other important contagious diseases. Veterinary Research Expenditure in the same year exceeded £1 million. Research monies are firmly targeted at the major threats to the welfare of Thoroughbred racehorses in particular but also benefit horses of all breeds, types and occupations. Priorities for research are set by a group with input from the British Equine Veterinary Association, the Thoroughbred Breeders Association and, via the Veterinary Committee of the British Horseracing Authority, from other key industry stakeholders such as the National Trainers Federation and the Association of Racecourse Veterinary Surgeons. Infectious Disease, Musculoskeletal Sciences and Injury Prevention and Performance together represented approximately 60% of grant expenditure in the period 1998–2009 while approximately 10% was invested in each of Respiratory and Reproductive Health and Disease (Fig 1).

Figure 1.

The distribution of HBLB's Research funding from 1998–2009.

Many practitioners will be unaware that techniques and information that are used on a daily basis originated with HBLB funding. An example in use every day in my own clinical practice, is the important body of work by Dr Lesley Young that provided the epidemiological data that enables confident, evidence-based recommendations to be made when a cardiac murmur is detected in an equine athlete at the sales or in a suitability for purchase exam (Young et al. 2008). The fundamental knowledge on the importance of bacteria in the pathogenesis of lower airway inflammation was established in the 1990s by workers at the Animal Health Trust (Burrell et al. 1996; Ward et al. 1998), where to this day, there is an ongoing HBLB programme supporting the Thoroughbred Infectious Disease Services, jointly funded with contributions from the Thoroughbred Breeders Association and the Racehorse Owners Association. It is this information that underpins the interpretation of the innumerable tracheal washes that are a day-to-day activity for very many veterinarians working in racing yards. HBLB funding contributes to the Influenza Surveillance Programme, also based at the Animal Health Trust, which collects information on viral strains and antigenic drift that is needed to ensure that our flu vaccines are current, not only for use in the UK but on a global basis. HBLB projects have shed light on the diseases to which racehorses are particularly prone, such as gastric ulceration (Martineau et al. 2009a,b) and dynamic upper respiratory tract obstruction (Allen and Franklin 2010; Hawkes et al. 2010) while at the same time, providing support for problems that, while not common, are of major concern to the race-going public such as sudden death in racehorses (Lyle et al. 2010).

In the field of musculoskeletal sciences, one of the Board's most significant area of investment, the HBLB has funded important work on the pathogenesis, avoidable risk factors and early detection of limb fracture (Jackson et al. 2009; Kristoffersen et al. 2010) and bone disorders (Barr et al. 2009). Tendon and ligament injury has been a long-standing focus, going back to the ‘Silver Report’ into firing, the first ever EVJ supplement (Silver and Rossdale 1983) and continuing on through studies on risk factors (Avella et al. 2009; Ely et al. 2009) to the more up-to-date approach of stem cell therapy (Guest et al. 2010) and novel diagnostic techniques (Dakin et al. 2010). Of considerable interest to the racing fraternity, recent HBLB studies have addressed the relationship between race performance and training regimens (Ely et al. 2010) and further development of this work is likely to lead to an evidence-base from which more effective methods of training can evolve.

The future of HBLB funding is underthreat: in July 2010 the Board announced that it was making significant reductions in all areas of spending. Veterinary expenditure was reduced from over £2 million to £920,000 and the HBLB Chairman, Paul Lee, expressed at that time the difficult and unwelcome decisions faced by the Board when making such a significant reduction in this area. As a result, only 2 research grants were awarded, whereas previously there had been between 6 and 8 per year. Funding for the 2010/11 research and training scholarships and for the Codes of Practice has been retained but almost every other area of activity has been curtailed significantly. At the current time, future funding is uncertain and there has been no call for research funding applications during 2010, nor will there be in 2011. A further review of scholarship applications is the early part of next year. As outlined above, the HBLB has funded so much work that informs clinical practice, we are in danger of taking it for granted. But, we can be sure; we will miss it badly if it disappears. As equine veterinarians, we have a responsibility to ensure we do everything in our power to improve clinical practice and enhance the welfare of the horse. It is imperative for the ongoing development of equine veterinary practice that work on the underpinning science continues and the Veterinary Research and Education budget represents the British horse racing industry's single most important means to contribute to the health and well-being of its central star, the racehorse. Without healthy racehorses there can be no horse racing.

Equine Veterinary Journal is delighted to introduce HBLB's Advances in Equine Veterinary Science and Practice Review Series in recognition of the major contribution that HBLB research and educational funding has made to the health and welfare of the Thoroughbred. This series of review articles will appear throughout the 2011 issues to mark the HBLB's 50th anniversary and to document the advances that have been the direct result of HBLB funding. The first of these in which Professor Jacqui Matthews summarises research aimed at addressing the threat of parasitic disease can be found on page 126 in this issue.