Do you take care of the horses? Ultimately, that’s all anyone – anyone who gives a darn anyway – wants to know when it comes to racing. People new to the sport ask about the horses, always.
And racing might finally be able to start answering yes, even if there are miles to run in a race that will never truly end. The horses competing at the world’s racetracks are at risk. Like athletes anywhere, they can always get injured. All humans can do is minimize the risk, treat the horses with respect and never stop striving for a safer sport.
In 2008, The Jockey Club took a step forward when it created the Equine Injury Database which tracks equine fatalities that occur within 72 hours of a race. The database collects information from North American Thoroughbred tracks (93 percent take part), and produces statistics designed to identify risk factors and at the very least give regulators and researchers targets for future study.
That, in turn, results in a safer sport for horses and the numbers back up the concept.
The 2016 figures, released in March, showed a reduction in the overall equine fatality rate for the fourth consecutive year to 1.54 per 1,000 starts. The figure was 2.00 in 2009, a decrease of 23 percent to the 2016 number – the lowest of the eight years.
“One of the primary objectives of this project from the outset was to build a comprehensive data source we could utilize to improve safety and prevent injuries, and we are now clearly achieving that goal,” said Dr. Tim Parkin, a veterinarian and epidemiologist from the University of Glasgow, and a consultant on the Equine Injury Database, in a press release. “The racetracks, the horsemen, and the regulators who have implemented safety initiatives over this time period deserve a great deal of credit for this encouraging trend.”
Parkin performed the data analysis, which was further broken out to 1.70 per 1,000 races on dirt, 1.09 on turf and 1.14 on synthetic surfaces. Regional tracks take part in the program and individual statistics are available for Laurel Park, Pimlico, Delaware Park and Presque Isle Downs. Like the national trend, all show decreases since 2009 with Delaware dropping to just .41 fatalities per 1,000 starts in 2016.
Data collection does not focus on why, but there are a few easy thoughts. Medication rules are more uniform than they were when this project began. Those rules also put more limits on the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory and corticosteroid medications. That produces a truer picture of a horse’s fitness for veterinarians in pre-race inspections, for trainers in morning exercise and for jockeys in pre-race warm-ups. Given those factors, it’s easy to draw a line to fewer at-risk horses starting, which limits injuries.
More importantly – long term – are the data points generated by eight years of research. They provide areas for additional study, and affect future medication rules, inspection protocols, racetrack surfaces and configurations, even the breaking/training practices of horsemen.
“We’re learning about risk factors – so we’ve got researchers taking some of the data and doing some deeper dive-ins,” said Dr. Jennifer Durenberger, a member of The Jockey Club’s Racing Equipment and Safety Committee and a former association veterinarian for the New York Racing Association. “And we’re able to get that information to trainers. It’s about educating everybody so horsemen are learning more about training practices, regulatory vets are learning more about what to look for in the morning and in the afternoon and vets in private practice are learning more about diagnostic tools to help address the risk factors.”
You can’t overstate the importance of that. Yesterday, uniform medication rules played a role. Today, it’s the usage of corticosteroids and anti-inflammatories. Tomorrow, it might be out-of-competition testing. The day after that, racing surfaces. Nobody knows, but that’s the point. “Data leads to awareness, awareness leads to appropriate diagnostics and that leads to good decision-making,” said Durenberger. She calls that “science in action.” It’s also, horse safety in action.
Regardless of what you do in the racing industry, horse safety touches everyone, so the more data and research racing has the better racing will be, even if the work only leads to additional efforts. Horse safety isn’t something you achieve and set aside like a trophy. No, horse safety is a goal, an effort.
The numbers say that effort is paying off.