Saratoga has been in the news this summer not just for its excellent racing and traditionally popular, fan-friendly atmosphere, but also for equine fatalities. So far this year at Saratoga, 17 horses have died, compared to 16 deaths in 2016 and 13 in 2015.
The New York State Gaming Commission, New York Racing Association, and New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association issued a press release days after the 17th death to assure the public they were working on the issue. In addition to safety protocols implemented over the past several years, the groups detailed the monitoring process for the track surface and announced additional regulatory veterinary presence on the backstretch.
One thing the release didn't provide was speculation on what has prompted the recent rash of deaths. An examination by the Paulick Report reveals that could be because there seems to be few similarities between them.
“We also have found no single identifying commonality to these horses,” said NYRA safety steward Hugh Gallagher. “However, we are continuing to examine and assess every possible relative factor as all of these matters remain active investigations.”
Dr. Scott Palmer, equine medical director for the commission, said it is the commission's policy not to comment on open investigation, but noted he anticipates releasing a report when investigations are complete.
According to the commission's database for equine deaths, one of this year's fatalities was unrelated to racing (a case of colic treated unsuccessfully at a nearby clinic). Of the remaining 16, eight were training injuries and eight were racing injuries. Fatal injuries have taken place on the main track, Saratoga's inner and outer turf tracks, and the dirt surface at the Oklahoma Training facility on the Saratoga campus. There has also been variability in the location of injuries on those track surfaces, with horses breaking down in the stretch, in the first turn, after the wire, and even one after the gallop out.
The Equine Injury Database has identified a number of risk factors associated with a higher probability of fatal injury for racehorses. Some of those are identifiable in a horse's past performances, while others remain difficult to spot without additional information from the state. We took a look at the few risk factors we could spot based on a horse's records in Equibase. (The two steeplechase deaths were excluded from this analysis, since the EID deals primarily with flat racing data.)
One of the EID-identified factors is the presence of a race on an “off” dirt track. According to racing charts, none of this year's racing fatalities took place on a dirt track rated anything other than fast. Track condition was not noted in the state database for three fatal injuries on the Oklahoma Training surface.
Horses that switch barns are known to carry an increased risk of fatal breakdown for a period of time after the switch. Only two of this year's fatalities switched barns since their first career starts, according to Equibase records.
Shorter races are also associated with an increased likelihood of fatality, with sprinters at the greatest risk, but four of six flat racing deaths took place at greater than one mile (one at 1 1/16 miles, two at 1 1/8 miles, and one at 1 ¾ miles).
Presence on a veterinarian's list is also associated with a higher likelihood of fatal injury, according to the EID, and the horse's risk remains elevated for a significant period after they are cleared to return to the starting gates. A horse may be placed on the vet's list for coming out of a race unsound or for failing a pre-race inspection sometime ahead of the race, or for the use of certain medications. New York does not maintain a public-facing, searchable index of its veterinarian's list (though it is one of two jurisdictions to provide a published vet's list, in the form of a daily pdf sheet), but we were able to see whether a horse had failed to finish in a previous start, which would probably result in its being added to the list. Just one horse had a prior DNF on its record.
In 2012, the New York Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety addressed a variety of possible influences on the number of equine deaths at the 2011-12 Aqueduct meet. Two of the temporary safety measures put in place as a result of that investigation were a requirement of 14 days between starts, and a ‘poor performer' list which would receive extra veterinary monitoring. Poor performers were defined as those who had finished 25 lengths or more behind the leader in at least one start.
None of this year's Saratoga racing fatalities were making a start with less than 14 days between starts. Only two would have qualified as ‘poor performers,' but just barely: both of them had finished right on the line at roughly 25-26 lengths off the leader once.
The public often voices concern about cheaper, claiming level runners being at increased risk for fatal breakdown. The EID has not yet been able to gather data on this successfully because of the disparity in quality and purse structure between tracks, but of the racing fatalities at Saratoga, only three horses were running for a tag. One was in a stakes race.
The 16 racing and training fatalities did not appear to be overworked, as a group. Number of lifetime starts ranged from zero to 23, with only three horses running more than 15 times in their careers. All three were five years old and up.
The one risk factor that did apply to roughly half of the 2017 Saratoga fatalities: 2-year-old campaigns. The EID has identified horses that have made a start at two as being less likely to suffer a fatal injury than those who did not. Eight of the 14 training and flat racing fatalities this year failed to make a start at two. (One 2-year-old filly, who died during training, was excluded from this number.)
None of this is to say the EID or the Task Force were wrong in their identification of risk factors or safety recommendations. Rather, the Saratoga meet may serve as a reminder of what Dr. Tim Parkin, senior lecturer at the University of Glasgow's equine clinical science program, said at last year's Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit. When looking at the national numbers, the risk of equine fatality went down significantly between 2014 and 2015. However, when researchers tried to explain the reduction in fatality rate, they found that seven identified risk factors only accounted for 35 percent of the decline. The other 65 percent is still out there, lurking in untested variables or in additional information Parkin and his colleagues don't have yet.
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