By Dr. Stacey Oke
In the wake of two highly publicized catastrophic racetrack injuries since May 2006, the safety of racing Thoroughbreds is being scrutinized by the media, public, animal rights groups, and members of the racing community.
“The entire equine industry is saddened over the loss of Eight Belles and Barbaro, and we are not going to idly stand by,” said Dr. Wayne McIlwraith. “For years we have been aggressively seeking methods to improve racing conditions to decrease the incidence of racetrack injuries.”
According to McIlwraith, two Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summits have been held in the past two years to discuss safety and soundness of the Thoroughbred racehorse. The Summits resulted in the formation of recommendations in six key areas that affect racehorses and shorten their careers—Education & Licensing, Racing Conditions/Racing Office, Research, Health & Medical Records, Racing Surfaces/Shoeing/Hoof Care, and Breeding Practices.
“We’ve had our meeting and now we need to act,” said McIlwraith. “The industry has to move forward and put many of our resolutions into effect to minimize the rate of both catastrophic and non-catastrophic injuries.”
This is exactly what Dr. Mary Scollay, associate veterinarian at Calder and Gulfstream Park is doing with her voluntary “On-Track Injury Reporting System.” Scollay’s analysis of the preliminary On-Track Injury data revealed that the fatality rate in Thoroughbred racehorses is extremely low-- 1.47 of 1,000 starts on synthetic surfaces and 2.03 fatalities per 1,000 starts on dirt.
Scollay added, “As I have emphasized before, this is just preliminary data and further research is required to fulfill the three goals of the injury reporting project--to identify the frequency, type, and outcome of racing injuries to develop a database capable of identifying horses at-risk for injury.”
These latest figures confirm earlier reports that have analyzed the risk of fatality in Thoroughbred racehorses in California, Kentucky, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Each of these studies concluded that the fatality rate is less than 1.8 per 1,000 starts and data from the United Kingdom suggests these rates are even lower.
“Obviously, we want this figure to be zero and we are all working towards achieving this goal,” said McIlwraith.
The media and activists contest that one way to decrease injuries is to place limits on racing based on gender and age.
Despite the demise of Eight Belles and Ruffian (who died during a match race with Foolish Pleasure in 1975), it is unclear at present whether gender is a real issue-- there is presently no data to suggest that fillies suffer catastrophic injuries more often than geldings or stallions.
Nor is there any evidence that younger horses (i.e., 2 year olds) are injured more often than their 3- or 4-year old competitors.
McIlwraith added, “In fact, there is epidemiologic data in the United States showing 4- year-olds as having the highest incidence of catastrophic injuries—not the 2-year-old group.”
In a 2007 study of Thoroughbreds in Ontario, there was no difference in catastrophic injuries in horses of different ages from 2-to-8 years-old, or between sexes (i.e., fillies, geldings, stallions).
The dedication of the Thoroughbred industry to racehorse safety is further evidenced by various other safety initiatives, including:
• Establishment of the Barbaro Fund and the Penn Vet Laminitis Institute;
• Formation and development of the Racing, Medication, and Testing Consortium (RMTC);
• Professional and education services provided by the American Association of equine Practitioners (AAEP);
• Aggressive research efforts in the field of joint disease and joint injuries to diagnose bone or joint damage in the early stages of disease and to estimate risk and severity of joint damage;
• Active efforts by charitable organizations such as the Southern California Equine Foundation, Inc. dedicated to protect the interest and promote the welfare of the equine athlete;
• Construction of synthetic surfaces at 9 racetracks throughout North America;
• Institution of the Jockey Club’s Thoroughbred Safety Committee, and;
• Scheduling regular meetings of the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit.
“Based on a Grayson-Jockey Club funded study conducted in Southern California, we have developed a serum ‘biomarker’ test (a blood test that can measure disease) with a 90% predictability for diagnosing a pre-fracture injury,” said McIlwraith.
McIlwraith’s vision for the future is the wide-spread use of this blood test to identify horses at-risk for injury then perform addition follow-up diagnostic imaging techniques such as bone scans, computed tomography, or magnetic resonance imaging to ultimately reduce the number of racehorse injuries.