Arizona: After Spike In Equine Fatalities, Voluntary Reforms Seem Too Little Too Late

by | 02.28.2019 | 2:55pm
Turf Paradise racetrack in Phoenix, Ariz.

All eyes have been on California racing this week, where a recent rash of breakdowns at Santa Anita has drawn attention from national media. Overall though, California's record on fatal injuries each year isn't bad — the rate for the 2017-18 fiscal year finished at 1.65 per 1,000 starts, roughly equal with the national average. Its neighbor to the east however, is having considerably more difficulty — and has been, for a lot longer.

The Arizona Republic put horse racing on blast earlier this month after an internal report showed an increase in racing-related fatalities in the state. For those who follow equine welfare and safety issues, the report was nearly as worrying as the number of fatalities themselves because of what they reveal about the state's policies.

According to the report, authored by representatives from the Arizona Department of Gaming-Racing Division, officials noted an 83 percent increase in equine fatalities between the 2015-16 and 2016-17 racing seasons. Together with Turf Paradise management, veterinarians, the Midwestern University College of Veterinary Medicine, and the Arizona HBPA laid out a series of reforms ahead of the 2017-18 season.  

Among those reforms: Veterinarians would begin conducting pre-race soundness exams on “up to” 10 horses each day, selecting horses based on estimated risk of breakdown; necropsies would be performed on equine fatalities; a newly-formed Equine Safety Review Committee would discuss necropsy results; horses would need a post-workout blood test before they could be removed from the veterinarian's list; shockwave therapy would be banned on the backstretch; and finally, officials would begin taking anonymous reports about horses that appeared lame.

Just for comparison's sake, let's place those suggestions next to standard practice in California, the nearest state with a broad series of safety programs in place.

  • Pre-race soundness exams on “up to 10” at-risk horses daily. All runners in California have been subject to pre-race exams since 1981. Arizona's rules have allowed officials to conduct exams for several years, but they were evidently not taking place until 2017. Indeed, all runners in California are inspected before they run, with additional exams on horses in defined risk groups.

    In the fiscal year 2017-18, California vets examined over 33,000 starters. Arizona conducted 1,527 pre-race exams at Turf Paradise and Rillito Park, the two tracks with the majority of the state's racing dates. 
  • Necropsies would be performed/a committee would be established to analyze results. California began its postmortem examination program in 1990. The review program is still voluntary and informal; however, the California Horse Racing Board's Dr. Rick Arthur said the trainers who opt into necropsy reviews find them informative and useful. 
  • Horses would need to pass a postworkout blood test to come off the veterinarian's list. To come off the veterinarian's list, Arizona, California and other states require the horse to work an appointed distance within a prescribed time and pass a soundness exam afterward. California has also required blood tests for horses “working off” their veterinarian's list for 15 to 20 years; these tests are akin to post-race drug tests and designed to ensure the trainer isn't trying to patch the horse together to pass inspection. Arizona had previously not required this. Additionally, California has progressing minimum times a horse must stay on the veterinarian's list for each additional placement on the list within 365 days. 
  • Shockwave therapy banned on the backstretch Shockwave itself isn't forbidden in California, but horses that receive it must be put on the veterinarian's list for 10 days after receiving treatment. Only licensed veterinarians are allowed to use shockwave machines in designated areas, and the machines are not allowed at all in barns. 

Unfortunately, Arizona's Department of Gaming is quick to admit, those reforms did little to stem the spike noted in the 2016-17 season. In fact, there were even more fatalities – 50 total – in 2017-18. Race-related fatalities jumped from 12 in 2016-17 to 31 in 2017-18.

To its credit, the Department makes no effort to sugarcoat these numbers in its report, available through the commission's website. Report authors point out the national average for fatalities in 2017 was 1.61 incidents per 1,000 starts, while in Arizona the figure was 3.41 per 1,000 starts – more than double.

It's also worth noting that 1.61 per 1,000 starts comes from the Jockey Club's Equine Injury Database; at the time of this fatality spike, Arizona was one of few states whose tracks did not report its numbers to that Database.

As it turned out, only four of the 31 racing fatalities in 2017-18 had been examined pre-race based on the Department's risk factors. The report noted, “Each day more horses were identified as being at risk … than could be examined.” Arizona's entire team for these pre-race exams: one state veterinarian and one assistant.

It also seems like blood testing horses coming off the veterinarian's list was a good move. In the 2017-18 meet, 98 horses tried to work off the list and eight (roughly 8 percent) failed their post-workout drug test. In California, 512 horses tried to work off the veterinarian's list in the fiscal year 2017-18. Nine (1.8 percent) failed their tests.

After studying the 2017-18 numbers, the Arizona Department of Gaming made additional recommendations, including an expansion of staff to enable all horses to be examined pre-race, consultancy with outside track surface experts, trainer continuing education, and a requirement for all state tracks to report to the EID.

There's no question that if the state is able to implement these changes, it will be better off than it was prior to the 2016-17 season — before a total of 43 horses died of racing-related injuries. (For perspective, that's nearly an entire race card, based on Turf Paradise's 66 horses entered for Feb. 11.) Indeed, the policy changes made ahead of the 2018-19 season may already be helping. A spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Gaming reported the fatality rate for the 2018-19 season is on track for a decrease compared to 2017-18.

“As of February 13, 2019, Arizona's equine fatality rate for fiscal year 2019 has improved. Current stats demonstrate the fatality rate has dropped to 2.8 per 1,000 starts, which is about 13 percent lower than last fiscal year's rate,” read a Department statement provided to the Paulick Report. “Still higher than the national average, which means we know there is more work to do, this outcome is a positive indicator that our ongoing collaboration and attention are making a difference.”

The Department has commitments from all Arizona tracks to begin reporting to the EID, to consult surface experts, and to report daily track surface and equipment maintenance figures.

The Department “is continuing to evaluate options” for the recommendations it should hire a safety steward, an additional veterinarian, and a veterinary assistant. It's also “working to identify subject matter experts who can provide informal educational meetings with trainers and other licensees about industry best practices.” To actually engineer a continuing education requirement “could require changes to Arizona's rules.”

And what about those pre-race veterinary exams?

As of today's monthly meeting with industry stakeholders, all three Arizona racetracks have committed to working to achieve 100 percent pre-race exams during their meets,” read the Feb. 15 statement.

That's because the commission's suggestions for safety improvements are just that – suggestions. Implementation is, the Department stated, voluntary.  

State officials seem to be reinventing the wheel on safety – and why the commission hasn't mandated change. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association's Safety and Integrity Alliance exists primarily to help tracks improve equine and human welfare with a set of uniform guidelines. The Association of Racing Commissioners International maintains a set of model rules specifically formulated for commissions that want to require tracks adhere to best practices on safety and integrity. The University of Arizona's Race Track Industry Program, based less than 150 miles from the Department of Gaming, holds an annual Global Symposium on Racing covering these very topics. (It should be noted that Rillito, which held 12 race dates in 2017-18, recently announced a partnership with the University of Arizona to improve equine health and safety.)  If nothing else, there's no doubt equine medical directors and track superintendents in other states would be happy to answer a phone call seeking guidance.

Later this year, the former Yavapai Downs will reopen as Arizona Downs, marking the first time since 2010 the facility will have hosted live racing. The meeting is projected to span from Memorial Day to Labor Day, adding more race dates to fill a previously-dark period in Arizona's racing calendar. This seems like a good time to consider whether 'voluntary' is still cutting it.

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