Welfare & Safety of the Racehorse Summit.

Welfare & Safety of the Racehorse Summit.

Kevin Thompson

Identifying At-Risk Racehorses a Priority

Data and conversation are being used to reduce catastrophic breakdowns.

As the North American Thoroughbred industry continues its quest to lower the catastrophic breakdown rate, it is actively pushing the need to identify at-risk racehorses, even if the effort makes stakeholders uncomfortable.

The two-day Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit kicked off July 8 at Keeneland in Lexington with a two-hour presentation on "Using Data to Keep Racehorses Safe." Though statistics may be the foundation, the discussion exposes a need for cultural changes within the racing industry.

It's now widely known that pre-existing conditions in racehorses can be a telltale sign of breakdown risk. It appears, however, the message gets lost in the translation.

"We need to dispel the myth of inevitability (of catastrophic injuries)," said Dr. Mary Scollay-Ward, equine medical director for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. "When we have acceptance without objective analysis, we have complacency."

In speaking about Kentucky's mortality review program, Scollay-Ward said those involved are becoming more cooperative, if not appreciative, in determining the cause of racehorse fatalities. In response to questions she acknowledged that horse owners and grooms don't participate in the reviews, but said that could change as the program evolves.

"This isn't a search for someone to hang (for a horse's death)," Scollay-Ward said. "It is about a desire to find out if something could have turned out differently. No stakeholder benefits from the death of a horse."

Dr. Lisa Hanelt, an examining veterinarian at Finger Lakes Gaming & Racetrack in New York, explained the progress vets have made in not only tracking statistics to identify at-risk horses, but getting horsemen involved in the process. Finger Lakes has three full-time examining vets that each handled about 3,500 pre-race exams last year.

Hanelt said the vets keep records of all pre-race exams and keep detailed spreadsheets that help identify horses at risk. Of the 19 orthopedic-related catastrophic injuries in 2013, most were atypical of the local horse population, she said.

The Finger Lakes vets were, however, able to develop commonalities: Three or fewer starts at Finger Lakes, a change in owner or trainer, a significant drop in class, an appearance on the vet's list, and intra-articular corticosteroid injections.

"We've all heard about the 'bad step,' " Hanelt said. "It isn't true. We all lose when there are catastrophic injuries. Trainers have the power to make a horse high-risk or lower-risk."

Hanelt said at Finger Lakes, there has been growing cooperation among private vets and examining vets to share information helpful to the horse. Trainers, she said, also have been helpful in supplying information.

"We initiate conversations with trainers and do a lot of past-performance research to help us prompt questions," Hanelt said. "The trainers are usually happy to tell us what they know."