The Equine Injury Database recently released data from 2016, showing the lowest fatality rate per 1,000 starts for American racehorses since the Database began keeping records in 2009. The fatality rate for 2016 was 1.54 per 1,000 starts and includes horses that died within 72 hours after a race. That figure is based on data from the racetracks holding 96 percent of race dates in the country. In those seven years of data collection, the rate of fatalities on dirt has gone down 19 percent, and turf racing has seen 44 percent fewer fatalities.
The Jockey Club announced the launch of the Database in 2008, at a time when the sport was scrambling to respond to public concerns about equine safety following the highly-publicized breakdown of Eight Belles at the 2008 Kentucky Derby. The hope was that the Database would identify patterns related to racing fatalities which could be used to make new rules for the protection of horses. Statistical models work more effectively the more data they have to draw on, so reform advocates knew the Database would take time to gather enough information to provide them with suggestions. In the meantime, equine medical directors, Jockey Club representatives, veterinarians, and others gathered to share their observations and safety concerns in their own jurisdictions.
The Database was one of the products of the Jockey Club's Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit, which was first held in October 2006. The Summit, together with findings from the Database, stimulated discussion about the need for safety and welfare rule reforms, and a range of new regulations have been adopted in major racing states as a result. The graphic below shows a selection of reform initiatives and their adoptions by major racing states, alongside fatality rates for corresponding years.
The challenge for regulators and statisticians working on and with the Database is not just trying to understand what racing is doing wrong; it's also about figuring out what the sport has done right in its quest to bring the fatality rate down.
|Statistical Summary from 2009 to 2016|
There are so many factors influencing a horse's likelihood of fatal injury that no one can be sure which of the Association of Racing Commissioners International model rules or other reforms has made the most difference in the rate's downward trend.
“If there were just one thing we could fix, if there were a switch we could flip, we would have flipped it a long time ago,” said Dr. Mary Scollay, equine medical director for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and advisor on the Database. “It's progress in inches, and I think the good news is that so far it has been inches in the right direction.”
The biggest milestones, according to Scollay? Whip regulation, which includes both rules requiring the “padded” or “popper” type whips designed to create noise more than impact, and restrictions on the number of times a jockey may hit a horse in succession. Those initiatives began around 2008 and continued as recently as last year, when California tightened its rules on whip use.
After learning toe grabs on front feet could predispose a horse to injury, several states began discussing shortening or banning the grabs altogether around 2009. Toe grabs on front feet have been made smaller in most major racing states. The Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory, launched in 2009, has also provided important guidance to other labs on best practices for evaluating track surface.
Since 2012, states have begun changing the rules around claimed horses as well, reducing incentive for trainers to bring horses to the post with underlying issues. In California, claims are void by law if the horse dies during the race or is placed on the veterinarian's list. Over the following two years, New York and Maryland added rules voiding claims in the event of death or a horse being vanned off.
“Some people view the voided claim rule as some sort of warranty or protecting the claimant to the detriment of the trainer. It's not about protecting people (other than the jockeys), it's about protecting the horse,” said Scollay.
Scollay has studied injury statistics at high-level regional meets versus tracks with a more local trainer base. Perhaps counterintuitively, she found the smaller track with lots of claiming races had a lower fatality rate. She believes that's because trainers there recognize the likelihood of bringing a claimer back to the barn after the race, and they don't have a waiting list of horses to fill their stalls if they lost one to a major injury.
Scollay and Dr. Larry Bramlage, renowned equine orthopedic surgeon at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital, both believe tougher corticosteroid regulation may have contributed to decreased fatalities. Although corticosteroids are not harmful in and of themselves, overuse can cloud a veterinarian's ability to accurately assess a horse's soundness. Methylprednisolone (also known as Depo-Medrol) was found to linger in the joints longer than other types of corticosteroids, which may be especially problematic.
For research purposes, Scollay routinely reviews Kentucky's post-race drug testing data with “filters off,” meaning she sees all results from tests, including trace amounts of medications which aren't considered violations. After new corticosteroid rules were enacted, she saw far fewer trace amounts of the drugs in horses' systems. She's also seen fewer commission-initiated scratches for unsoundness. The total number of scratches for the fiscal year 2013, prior to the current corticosteroid rules, was 146 at Kentucky's tracks; in 2016, post-rule establishment, it was 101.
Outside of boosting state regulations, the number of racetracks using safety guidelines independent of state rules has increased, too. The NTRA launched its Safety and Integrity Alliance program in 2008 and had fifteen tracks accredited by 2009. There were 24 accredited by 2014.
Even with additional guidance from the database, Scollay recognizes it isn't feasible for tracks to eliminate all risk factors for horses. Having a menu of suggested reforms does allow tracks to pick and choose areas they can control to reduce breakdowns.
Experts believe, for example, that running claiming horses for a significantly higher purse than their tag value (most commonly done at slots-fueled tracks) encourages risky behavior on the part of trainers. It may not be reasonable for a track to change its purse structure for fear of losing entries; instead, there could be other areas, like race distance, the track can try to adjust for minimal risk.
Hold your horses
It's important to recognize it's unlikely that any one rule change is responsible for the downturn in Thoroughbred deaths. Dr. Tim Parkin, veterinarian and epidemiologist from the University of Glasgow, said so far his team has been able to explain just 35 percent of the change in fatality rates with its statistical models. The remaining 65 percent of the rate reduction that hasn't been quantified, and it may or may not be influenced by those regulatory changes.
Among the factors associated with 35 percent of the fatality rate decline: racing at two years old (horses are more likely to make their first starts at two, which is associated with reduced risk of injury), fewer races at six furlongs or under, fewer starts on dirt tracks not rated “fast,” and longer periods of time with the same trainer.
Parkin also cautions that it's natural for rates like these to vary somewhat year to year, which is evident from 2011 to 2014, when the fatality rate fluctuated between 1.88 and 1.92 and back again. Statisticians use different formulas to determine whether a change between two numbers is “significant” or not likely due to natural variation. The drop from 2014 to 2015 was statistically significant; Parkin suspects the drop from 2015 to 2016 probably was not statistically significant.
“Given such a dramatic drop last year, I was anticipating that 2016 might see at least a leveling off or maybe a slight uptick,” he said. “Some of that drop might have been some natural variation. It wouldn't have concerned me at all if there'd been a slight uptick in 2016 compared to the figures in 2015, but it's further encouraging that there's been a reduction. It gives me further confidence that what we're seeing is a true reduction.”
Parkin said the Database continues to collect additional types of data from racetracks to help analysts interpret the numbers. Workout data is now being added into the Database, which Parkin hopes will help give him more clues about the relationship of rest periods to injury rates; it's generally believed that too-long of a rest has a negative impact on bone remodeling, but that hasn't been testable to this point. One major dark area for Database analysts remains the veterinary records of horses that break down, as information is still subject to state privacy laws. It's also challenging to incorporate race-by-race changes in track surface due to weather, although the Database has recorded a track's official condition at the time of a race and found (unsurprisingly) that fast or firm tracks had less likelihood of fatal breakdowns.
As the industry continues to learn more, Parkin believes the simple discussion of these risk factors in the media and between regulators is probably having an unmeasurable impact.
“It's undoubtedly the case that simply talking about the issue gets people thinking about it,” he said. “I've seen lots of vets at their own tracks that have spoken to me and said, 'We're thinking about this and I keep my own spreadsheet of what's going on.' That's probably something they wouldn't have been doing 10 years ago. It's kind of an attitudinal change, as well as other, more measurable changes.”
Parkin said The Jockey Club recently renewed funding for the upkeep and analysis of the Database. In the future, he's hoping to create models that will test the impact of rule changes over the years since their institution.
Although there's still a lot to learn and much work to be done, Scollay said she's proud of how far the industry has come in working to improve equine safety.
“When you look at 2009 to 2016, I get chills,” she said. “What we needed to do, and what we talked about at the first Welfare and Safety Summit, was reducing our race fatalities by 50 percent. If we do that, the rest of the world has to talk to us like grown-ups, so we'll be there with them. Then [the fatality rate] will become all of our problem, not just, 'Those Americans who can't do it right.' It'll be a communal problem we have to continue to work on, but the finger pointing stops.
“We're halfway there. I think people should be heartened by that, but not get complacent. For people saying, 'it's a part of the game,' it's less a part of the game than you think. So I'm thrilled.”
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