The Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation held its seventh annual Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit on Tuesday with a packed agenda that addressed everything from the latest trends in the Equine Injury Database to jockey head injuries to whip use. While I'll be bringing you expanded summaries of the summit's most fascinating sessions in the coming days, here are a few initial statistics, facts, and anecdotes I found fascinating.
- Racing saw significantly fewer fatal injuries on the track in 2015; in fact, improvement was so great it even surprised the experts. Dr. Tim Parkin, senior lecturer at the University of Glasgow's equine clinical sciences program, presented updated data from the Equine Injury Database. The rate of fatal equine injuries has been in decline for the past several years, but the drop from 2014 to 2015 was surprising even to Parkin. For racing on dirt surfaces, the rate went from 2.4 fatalities per 1,000 starts to 1.79 (roughly 25 percent). On all surfaces, the rate went from 1.89 in 2014 to 1.62 in 2015. That may not sound like a huge difference, but in a statistician's world it's a big jump in the right direction.
- That decrease isn't necessarily the result of thoughtful changes in regulation or training. Parkin identified 20 risk factors for fatal injury (which he said is a large number of variables compared to similar analysis he's done in other industries). The seven most influential of these factors were: Gender, age at first start, amount of time with the same trainer, days in between races, race length, and the presence of a race on an “off” dirt track. Those seven factors only accounted for 35 percent of the reduction in fatalities from 2014 to 2015, however. That other 65 percent could include changes that weren't measured, or even factors we haven't considered yet.
- When it comes to health and performance, don't discount the influence of dust. Dr. Susan Holcombe, professor of large animal clinical sciences at Michigan State University, presented data showing just how seriously dust and environmental toxins can impact a horse's health. She estimates inflammatory airway disease occurs in some 33 percent of racehorses and is caused in part by dust—dust present in stalls, dust in straw bedding, dust in hay, dust kicked up by grooms raking barn aisles. She presented a particularly interesting map of the particulate measurements from the backstretch of an unidentified racecourse, showing that dust levels could range from acceptable to dangerous from barn to barn and even one stall to the next. Some of the levels measured would have made those environments unsafe working conditions for humans, according to standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
- Tradition isn't necessarily the best teacher for feeding racehorses. Drs. Robert Coleman and Laurie Lawrence of the University of Kentucky gave summit attendees a crash course in nutritional requirements for horses and the basic mechanisms of digestion. One point that stood out to me, in light of the grain-heavy diets most racehorses have: starches can prove challenging for horses' intestines to break down. Some are broken down in the small intestine, but those that aren't are handled by the large intestine…at a price. Breaking down a lot of starch there can increase acidity, which can upset the horse's natural gut flora. Lawrence suggested replacing some starch with fat and fiber when available and appropriate.
- Horses aren't running slower because of stricter whip rules. A panel discussion between former jockeys Chris McCarron and Ramon Dominguez, along with Ontario senior racing official Gunnar Lindberg, focused on the use of the riding crop. Lindberg revealed that when Ontario set rules requiring riders to wait for a response before issuing successive hits, there was an increase in whip-related violations initially, but riders adjusted their style and those numbers mostly went back to normal. He also pointed out that track records pre-dating that rule, which was instituted in 2009, are still broken with some regularity, suggesting to him that horses aren't failing to perform as a result of being hit less often.
- A pilot program is coming to address jockey concussions. Dr. Carl Mattacola of the University of Kentucky, who has spoken out before about the dangers of head injuries in riders, announced a pilot program to help deal with the issue. The program is expected to roll out in Kentucky and will require riders to be registered with a baseline series of tests and injury history entered into a central system. If head injuries take place, they would be required to be cleared by medical personnel before returning to the saddle. The hope is that program could reduce the risk of additional traumatic brain injury by returning to work too quickly after a concussion.
- There's a very good reason you shouldn't buy that (illegally compounded) omeprazole. A panel presentation from Drs. Dionne Benson of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, Scott Stanley of the University of California-Davis, and Lynn Hovda of the Minnesota Racing Commission included a parade of examples of substances seized during investigations or turned into racing officials by concerned trainers. One of the most common products pedaled by online merchants (like Horse PreRace, whose wares we wrote about earlier this year) is omeprazole, which is the active ingredient in Gastrogard. It's illegal to compound and sell a trademarked drug like Gastrogard except in very specific circumstances, but if you're not concerned about the safety or legality of the compound you think you're buying online, you should be worried about whether it works. Part of the reason trademarked omeprazole is so expensive is that it's an unstable drug. It needs the right ingredients in the paste to maintain its efficacy, and even then it expires more quickly than most oral pastes. If a compounder is making it in bulk and letting it sit around, it may be completely useless by the time it gets to your door. That instability is also part of what makes the legitimate stuff so pricey.
- Stricter corticosteroid regulations could be contributing to fewer fatal breakdowns on the track. We've talked with Dr. Larry Bramlage of Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital before about the dangers of misusing Depo-Medrol in horses. During a panel on injury diagnosis, he went so far as to say that the adoption of new rules aimed at reducing its use near race day could be helping to keep horses alive. Bramlage believes that corticosteroids, when used appropriately, can help an injured horse. When used inappropriately however, they can make it difficult for a veterinarian to detect and diagnose an existing injury. It doesn't account for all the improvement shown in Parkin's figures, Bramlage said, but it probably has something to do with the decrease in fatalities from 2014 to 2015.
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