Veterinarians with the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and management at Turfway Park are looking into reasons why the number of catastrophic injuries over the Polytrack surface spiked during the recently concluded holiday meet at the northern Kentucky track.
Dr. Bryce Peckham, state veterinarian, reported to commissioners Jan. 6 that there were eight catastrophic, or fatal, live racing injuries during the 21-day holiday meet run in late November and all of December 2008, compared with four such fatalities during the 27-day meet a year earlier. There was an additional fatality in the paddock during the 2007 Turfway holiday meet.
Peckham and Dr. Mary Scollay, medical director for the KHRC, said they are working with Turfway management to determine causes and solutions to the problem.
“We are very concerned about this injury rate,” Peckham said.
Based on analysis of the first six fatalities, those occurring during the first 18 days of the meet, Peckham said the problems appeared most prevalent in the left front legs.
Peckham said his veterinary staff had been diligent in their pre- and post-race inspections of horses running at the Turfway meet. With two veterinarians on hand at the track during racing, he said the pre-race exam included observation of each starter as they jogged prior to going to the track.
“We take pre-race exams very seriously,” Peckham said.
One of the first steps taken by Turfway en route to resolving the problem was to lift a ban on rear toe grabs, Peckham said. While the Kentucky commission and others have adopted regulations banning front toe grabs, there is no such prohibition on rear toe grabs. However, Turfway and some other tracks have their own “house rules” for horses racing at their ovals, including bans on rear toe grabs.
Scollay, who like Peckham cautioned that there are many causes for fatal breakdowns, explained that some horsemen believe an inability of horses to get good traction on their rear legs as a result of not being equipped with toe grabs -- providing better traction -- may be putting an abnormal amount of weight on the front legs, thus increasing the risk for breakdowns.
Peckham said Turfway officials had also brought in an expert on synthetic surfaces to inspect the track as part of the effort to find reasons for the injuries. He said the state veterinary staff will closely monitor the types of shoes being worn by horses racing at the Turfway meet.
“We are looking at everything. We are not focusing on any one thing,” Peckham said.
A representative of The Jockeys’ Guild who was at the meeting said riders at Turfway Park had not voiced any concerns about the track surface.
Turfway president Bob Elliston told the Associated Press that a rubberized substance was added to the track in summer 2007 after jockeys complained of kickback from the synthetic material, but said there had been no other significant changes to the way races there are run.
"We don't believe the surface is unsafe, and we're going to endeavor to make sure that's the case," Elliston said.