Kentucky, which has traditionally tracked slightly better than the national average on race-related fatalities, closed out 2018 with a significant increase, and Kentucky Horse Racing Commission staff are stumped. Figures presented at a KHRC meeting Feb. 19 showed there were 36 fatalities in the state in 2018, compared with 20 the previous year. That figure translates to 2.39 fatalities per 1,000 starts, as compared to 1.33 per 1,000 starts in 2017. The national average in 2017 was 1.61 per 1,000 starts, and while complete 2018 data has not yet been analyzed, KHRC equine medical director Dr. Mary Scollay said she anticipated Kentucky's rate would be “well above” the national average for the first time.
“I have reviewed all of the information related to the fatally-injured horses – all of the known risk factors that have been documented by Dr. Tim Parkin and all of the risk factors that have been identified locally,” Scollay said. “I have compared the affected horses with control horses from each race to see if they stood out in any way, and they did not.
“There are probabilities you can have an outlier any time but with that said, I am unwilling to simply accept that this was an outlier event. I want to be very aggressive in insuring that we not only go back to the numbers we had before, but that we improve on that.”
All horses were examined via necropsy and had samples pulled for drug tests. None had severe pre-existing conditions, and none had medication violations.
Claiming horses made up more of the 2018 fatalities than non-claimers, but Scollay said the proportion was not out of the ordinary. Statistically, this would make sense, since claimers comprise a majority of any given state's races.
The only change Scollay has noticed is that national analysis previously suggested 3- and 4-year-old horses were at the greatest risk for fatal injury compared to other ages. Recently, Scollay has noticed the at-risk age group shifting to 2- and 3-year-olds. She isn't sure whether this is a lasting change or what it may mean.
A new investigative development for 2018: Scollay said bone chips from deceased horses were sent to a laboratory for analysis, where she hopes scientists will discover whether the horses had been given bisphosphonates.
Bisphosphonates are a class of drugs which recently gained approval for adult horses battling navicular syndrome (lameness). Prior to that, they were used in humans to control osteoporosis. Bisphosphonates work to thicken bone by deactivating cells called osteoclasts, which break down damaged bone and clear it away, allowing osteoblasts to come in and lay down more layers of bone. The drug also has an analgesic effect. The problem with that process taking place in a still-developing horse is that it will make new bone development brittle and slow healing of injuries to the bone.
Renowned equine surgeon Dr. Larry Bramlage expressed concern in 2018 that the rumored use of bisphosphonates in horses preparing for sale could result in more injuries later on in the horses' lives. It's possible a trainer could acquire a horse via a public auction or private purchase without knowing it had been given bisphosphonates earlier in life and therefore not take appropriate precautions. Veterinarians don't know exactly how long the drug lives on bone surfaces, but it's thought to linger for months. It does not live in the blood very long however, which means there's a limited window of detection for regulators. Scollay does not yet know whether last year's fatal breakdowns had bisphosphonates in their systems.
“All of our racetracks were impacted by this; it was not a single racetrack or two racetracks,” she said. “We will continue to look at this and try to find a way forward that will result in increased safety.”
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