By: Frank Angst
In 2016 nearly 150 horses who seven years earlier might have been lost to catastrophic breakdowns while racing, safely walked off the track after competing and returned to their barns.
Those accidents that never happened can be attributed to an industry that has worked to gather better information on catastrophic breakdowns, new industry initiatives, improved regulation, and a changing mind-set all focused on reducing equine injuries.
By applying statistics that have seen the industry reduce its catastrophic breakdown rate 23% since 2009, it can be said that 146 catastrophic breakdowns in races were avoided in 2016 thanks to industry changes over the past eight years.
Based on numbers collected by The Jockey Club Equine Injury Database, which accounts for 94% of all North American starts, the catastrophic breakdown rate has been reduced in each of the past four calendar years. In both 2015 and 2016 it registered record low breakdown rates.
When considering such infrequent events—the 2009 catastrophic breakdown rate was one of every 500 starts—there can be a tendency to attribute progress to luck or to a positive cycle. It’s important to note the reduced breakdowns haven’t just happened on their own; the improved safety is a result of industry changes.
“We’ve seen a significant decrease in the number of fatalities, and that is certainly very encouraging,” said Dr. Tim Parkin, a University of Glasgow veterinarian and epidemiologist who analyzes the EID. “The wide-ranging safety initiatives embraced by tracks, horsemen, and regulators have very likely played a role in the reduction of injuries and fatalities.”
The changes trace back at least 10 years, and the EID itself, launched in July 2008, has helped spur safety efforts by giving the industry the ability to track progress. Before 2009 the industry had no way of knowing the rate of its catastrophic breakdowns. That began to change in October 2006 when the database was proposed at the first Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit.
That summit followed the Preakness Stakes (G1) breakdown of Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) winner Barbaro, who ultimately lost his life after developing laminitis during his recovery. In 2008 racing received further scrutiny following the filly Eight Belles’ catastrophic breakdown after finishing second in the Derby. The industry felt public pressure to do more in the area of equine safety.
The Jockey Club Safety Committee was formed in May 2008. In October 2008 the industry pushed for changes at tracks through the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Safety and Integrity Alliance, which has developed a comprehensive safety and integrity code of standards. It also has been a valuable conduit of best practices and now works with tracks and regulators to put safety changes in place for horses and riders.
The Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit, coordinated and underwritten by Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation and The Jockey Club, has met six more times since and has formulated many of the safety ideas that have been put in place in recent years.
Some other efforts that have spurred safety ideas include the American Association of Equine Practitioners’ formation of a racing committee that has issued white papers on best practices in the racing environment. Following a rash of breakdowns at the 2011-12 Aqueduct Racetrack meeting, the New York Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety formulated a report that outlined the many factors, beyond track condition, that contribute to breakdowns.
“The good work of The Jockey Club at the Welfare and Safety Summit and the implementation efforts of the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance have combined to help us understand what is happening,” said NTRA president Alex Waldrop. “The Equine Injury Database—it’s enabled us to dig down into the causes.”
Parkin, in his EID analysis, has determined a wide variety of factors can contribute to breakdowns. The industry has responded with a number of safety enhancements that have helped reduce injuries.
“Like Dr. Parkin, I believe the wide-ranging safety initiatives embraced by tracks, horsemen, and regulators in recent years have all played a role in the reduction of injuries and fatalities,” said TJC president and chief operating officer Jim Gagliano.
That said, the racing surface is an important part of the equation. Dr. Wayne McIlwraith, internationally renowned surgeon in the field of equine orthopedics, has become an expert on racing surfaces as well. He’s the founding researcher of Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory, working with executive director Mick Peterson. McIlwraith said research, combined with the efforts of track superintendents, has improved track safety and consistency.
The laboratory does composition analysis and performance testing of dirt and synthetic surfaces and even uses radar to look at the base of the surface. The information they gather can then be used by the track.
“The number one thing is we need regular testing with surveillance and appropriate maintenance decisions for that day or that week because track surface will vary,” McIlwraith said. “Mick has varying levels of engagement with track superintendents and the ones that are high in engagement and testing of surfaces, it’s paid off.”
McIlwraith said for years the go-to blame for breakdowns was the track surface. While racing surfaces certainly deserve attention, he thinks having that ready-made explanation might have stalled progress in addressing other problems.
“When something goes wrong, I think you have to look at the soundness of the horse and overmedication,” McIlwraith said. “The tightening up on these issues has helped a lot.”
Industry leaders say one of the biggest added layers of safety for horses—and riders—is the increased use and improved thoroughness of pre-race exams, where horses are checked by regulatory veterinarians on the mornings they race.
“We’ve had an increased focus on pre-race exams. And the scope of the pre-race exams themselves has improved,” said Kentucky equine medical director Dr. Mary Scollay, noting that changes in medication policy have helped ensure that painkillers are not masking issues in the examined horses. “Our medication regulation has resulted in more judicious use of medication and a more reliable ability to evaluate horses during the pre-race exams or even before—so that they don’t get entered if they’re not right.”
Jockeys’ Guild national manager Terry Meyocks has noticed the difference pre-race exams are making in improving safety for the horse, and, in turn, the rider.
“Also, more track veterinarians are taking responsibility to where if a horse is warming up wrong—something might have happened coming on the van ride or walking from the barn—the horse is being scratched,” Meyocks said. “That gives the owner and trainer time to re-assess.”
The Racing Medication and Testing Consortium includes representation from throughout the industry. It has shaped rule changes that RMTC executive director Dionne Benson thinks have contributed to improvements. She believes corticosteroid regulations that have pushed out the injections to at least a week before a race have helped improve safety.
“The single most valuable change RMTC has provided is the corticosteroid regulations,” Benson said. “The fact the corticosteroid injections are no longer done as a result of a horse entering a race, but rather performed on an as-needed basis, is a significant paradigm shift.”
The changed corticosteroid policy is a strong example of how groups have worked together on a safety issue. As scientific research raised concerns about links to joint damage from methylprednisolone (Depo-Medrol), the RMTC pushed the withdrawal time for this corticosteroid out to 21 days.
“They’ve almost made it to where you can’t use Depo-Medrol at all, which is music to my ears,” McIlwraith said. “We’ve shown that Depo-Medrol causes significant harm to cartilage, whereas the other corticosteroids, Triamcinolone (acetonide) and betamethasone, don’t. That’s been a hard message to get out, but we got there with a combination of education of veterinarians, plus making tighter restrictions.”
Association of Racing Commissioners International president Ed Martin agreed that improved pre-race exams and updated policies for corticosteroid injections have played a big role in reducing breakdowns.
“I think there has been a concerted and unified effort by tracks, horsemen, veterinarians, and regulators to better identify at-risk horses,” Martin said. “The implementation of model rules pertaining to pre-race exams as well as the medication reforms, particularly those affecting corticosteroids, have had a positive impact.”
Another significant industry medication change occurred in 2009 when anabolic steroids were largely banned from racing. Some international studies had linked breakdowns to the use of anabolic steroids as horses carried more mass, and their increased aggressiveness may have contributed to running through pain.
Late last year the ARCI adopted a model rule that further distances anabolic steroids from racing. The new model rule requires a horse that receives an anabolic steroid spend at least six months out of racing.
Benson said some other significant changes have included third-party Lasix administration, which has kept track veterinarians out of the barns on race day—reducing opportunity for illegal race-day medications to be administered. Benson noted that void-claim rules, which allow a claim to be voided should a horse not come out of a race in good order, also have had some impact in various jurisdictions.
Still, there are still tracks that do not contribute to the Equine Injury Database. There are still states that have not adopted the National Uniform Medication Program and other model rules that aim to improve equine safety. There are still tracks that do not participate in the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance.
“The elephant in the room is lack of uniformity,” said McIlwraith. “In every other major racing jurisdiction, you have a national authority, whether it’s France, the U.K., Ireland, Australia, or New Zealand. And so those countries can make the rules and everybody adheres to them. But there are 38 racing states in the U.S., and getting everybody to uniformity is difficult. That’s why we formed the RMTC.”
The Jockey Club has supported federal legislation that gives the United States Anti-Doping Agency oversight of the sport’s medication and drug testing. That bipartisan legislation was introduced again May 25 in Washington by Congressmen Andy Barr (R-KY) and Paul Tonko (D-NY).
Changes have occurred after the industry developed rules that it takes to the ARCI, which develops model rules it encourages regulators throughout the country to adopt. The NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance works to encourage tracks and state regulators to put changes in place. Still, there are racing jurisdictions that fall through the cracks under the current system.
There is no requirement for tracks to join the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance or for states to adopt the ARCI’s model rules. Groups such as the Jockeys’ Guild are forced to make their case to tracks and jurisdictions not meeting the industry and regulatory standards.
But overall, strides have been made. Waldrop, who also serves as RMTC chairman, said the industry needs to continue that momentum to keep the public’s trust.
“There is no conclusion on this issue; you’re never going to finish and say: ‘We’re done,’ ” Waldrop said. “The public is not going to be more forgiving. They’re not going to be more understanding. As long as there is one horse injured on a racetrack, we’re going to have to deal with this issue and be serious about doing everything we possibly can.”