Nicholson: Expand Safety and Welfare Efforts in Horse Racing

Nick Nicholson, the president and chief executive officer of Keeneland, called for the Thoroughbred industry to expand its efforts to protect its participants--both human and equine--from injury on the opening day of the third Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit June 25 at the Lexington track.

The Keeneland executive also said tracks should release, on an individual basis, information collected by the Equine Injury Database about their facilities because "openess and transparency is the right way to go." Participation by tracks in the EID currently is based on the premise that information about individual operations will not be made public.

During the summit's first day, Nicholson presented Keeneland data that included the results for its Polytrack surface and turf course since Jan. 1, 2007. There have been 10 racehorse fatalities in 9,934 starts, or an average of 1.01 fatalities per 1,000 starts. Since October 2006 on Polytrack only, there have been 10 fatalities in 9,662 starts, or 1.03 fatalities per 1,000 starts.

"This is on our website (http://www.keeneland.com/lists/copy//copy.aspx?Page=Safetystats), and we'll continue to update our website," Nicholson said. "I know that a number of other tracks are going to release their data, and hooray, I commend them. I wish that the data could be released by trainer as well."

In discussing an expansion of the welfare and safety effort, Nicholson suggested creating an injury database for jockeys and other racetrack personnel.

"If it makes sense to record injuries on our horses, does it also not make sense to record injuries on our riders and perhaps on everyone on the grounds of a racetrack?" he said.

Nicholson also mentioned four pieces of racetrack and riding equipment – starting gates, safety rails, helmets, and safety vests -- that could be improved using the same collaborative research effort (involving people inside and outside the industry) that had resulted in the collection of large amounts of data about racetrack surfaces following previous welfare and safety summits.

"The starting gate is probably the (site of the) most dangerous single moment (in racing), and yet we really haven't studied it over the years," he said. "Most of the starting gates are 50 years old or more. There has been very little improvement done from an engineering or analysis standpoint of the starting gate. Woodbine has done some very good work, which is a glaring, wonderful exception to that, but most improvements in starting gates have been slow to take place."

Nicholson also recommended greater efforts focused on improving the licensing procedures for and the experience level of jockeys.

"How careful are we compared to other sports? NASCAR and the Indy League, what do they put their drivers through before they allow them to drive professionally?" Nicholson said. "Perhaps we need to re-examine ourselves on licensing and at what point (we think) a jockey is ready to ride professionally."

Nicholson made the welcoming speech that opened the two-day summit, and he also was a member of a panel discussion on racing equipment and safety.

"There is an inherent danger to our sport," Nicholson said. "While we're trying to help mitigate that, we should not deny that inherent danger to our fans. We aren't the only sport that has an inherent danger attached to it. Car racing and football are two that you can mention just off the top of your head.

"Danger is part of those athletic competitions, and those sports have been able to maintain their bond with their patrons and fans and supporters because they have earned, or are constantly earning, the credibility with those fans that they are doing everything reasonably possible to make the sports safe. And I think that that's the appraoch we should take as well.

"We have a moral responsibility, and we have a responsibility to our fans to protect the riders and protect the horses. It will be impossible for us to grow our fan base unless we have earned credibilty with new fans who will not accept the status quo (and want to know) that we are doing everything we can to protect our athletic partipants."

According to Nicholson, the effort to improve welfare and safety should be viewed by the Thoroughbred industry as a never-ending process, "one that has no final victory. Wherever we are, we've got to strive to get better. We can never say that we have reached the final destination."

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.

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