Since last June, racetracks across the United States have been gathering statistics on race-day injuries to horses. This pilot study, initiated by the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit, and underwritten by grants from the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation and the Jockey Club, was designed to identify the frequency and types of injuries to racehorses, using a format that would standardize the data. The data presumably would yield clues that could lead to strategies for reducing catastrophic injuries to racehorses. At the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) meeting in December, preliminary results of the research were presented.
One of the most talked-about features of the research focused on the ways racing surfaces might contribute to injuries.
"We all pretty much agree the book is still out on synthetic surfaces," says Dr. Jerry Pack, a Horse Racing Commission Veterinarian at Penn National Race Track, and a member of the AAEP's Regulatory Veterinarians group. "I think the question remains, is this track going to be consistent throughout the year? Nobody knows that."
The data indicate fewer catastrophic injuries occurred on turf and synthetic tracks during the study period. But questions persist. For instance, Pack says that winter racing presents challenges that have not been resolved by the synthetic surfaces. "There's nobody else in the United States that faces the conditions we face in the east."
The Blood-Horse in December presented a comprehensive picture of the synthetic surface debate. They reported that inconsistencies in the performance of synthetic tracks occurred even in places where freezing weather was not a factor. There were questions about proper maintenance of the synthetic surfaces, and in some cases there were drainage issues.
There is a sense among some horsemen that the product's benefits were oversold. But Pack believes that the industry is still in the starting gate as far as the synthetic track debate is concerned.
"We're actually a couple of years down the road," he says. "Are there some issues we haven't even thought of?" Pack believes that synthetic surfaces present other questions regarding safety. "Do we install synthetics, but put in a risk factor with a respiratory issue? We want to see if there's a risk with what the horses are inhaling. With some surfaces, there is a little kickback and the potential for inhaling by jocks and horses," he explains.
Many of the trainers, jockeys, veterinarians and track superintendents interviewed for The Blood-Horse reported that synthetic tracks are not panaceas for eliminating injuries. But they do have attributes that will keep them in the game. Trainer Eddie Kenneally of Kentucky is a fan of Polytrack, which is used at Turfway and Keeneland. "It's important to keep in mind that these are athletes, and you're going to get a certain amount of injuries. Some people expect Polytrack to be a miracle-worker, that there aren't going to be any problems, but that's not the case. I think horses who have existing problems, they're not going to go away if you move them from dirt to Polytrack."
California's racing board mandated synthetic tracks, and that has paved the way for the first major championship to be run on a synthetic surface. The 2008 Breeders' Cup is scheduled for October 24-25 at California's Santa Anita Park.
Pack says that although the injury data are inconclusive as far as synthetic surfaces are concerned, there were some intriguing presentations that raised new questions. "One veterinarian had video of horses pulling up post-race," Pack says. "What you see is, instead of letting the horse just gallop out straight and slow down, jockeys are pulling them around." Again, there were no conclusions from this presentation, only more questions about whether it would be better to let horses slow down gradually, in a straightaway. "We know there's a percentage of horses that have catastrophic injuries post-race," he says and suggests that this is another area where more research is needed. He says that even when racehorses are being ponied, their heads and necks are turned in awkward angles while their bodies move in a different direction.
In his article in The Blood-Horse about the synthetic surface debate, Lenny Shulman noted that not all race-day injuries happen during the race. "Most racetracks officially report only deaths that take place during racing programs. That leaves out morning training hours, when the vast majority of breakdowns take place." Even many injuries that occur on the track are not necessarily caused by the surface.
"Toe grabs have to be dealt with," Pack says. "From the Penn National data, we've seen a higher incidence of catastrophic injury with toe grabs."
This is another issue that is more complicated than it seems. Pennsylvania can outlaw them, but the reality is that horses from other states come to Pennsylvania to race, and Pennsylvania horses race in other states where toe grabs might not be prohibited. "We have to consider the surrounding areas," he says. "If you go out on a limb yourself, you may get it chopped off." Pennsylvania is working with racetracks in the mid-Atlantic region to reach a consensus on toe grabs, traction devices that appear as a ridge extending from the horse shoe, much like an elliptical cleat.
The data Pack cites are pretty consistent with data from veterinarian groups around the country. In a three-year study by University of California Davis veterinarians, there was a correlation between toe grabs and catastrophic injuries. "In a postmortem study of racehorses, horses that had regular-height toe grabs were 3.5 times as likely to suffer a fatal musculoskeletal injury and 16 times as likely to suffer a suspensory apparatus failure [as] horses that were not wearing toe grabs." Results of the study were published in the American Journal of Veterinary Research in August, 1996.
Toe grabs are controversial, because some trainers believe they offer competitive advantages that outweigh the potential for injury. The discussion runs much like disarmament talks among nations; trainers express reluctance to give up their toe grabs unless and until everyone else does.
Pack says that there are risk factors that have nothing to do with track surface, weather or shoeing. These are in the attitudes and experiences of those who are responsible for the care of horses, from the trainers to the jockeys.
Some horses just should not be raced on any given day, but the people who work with those horses don't recognize the signs of distress—or they ignore them. Their lack of experience leads to serious consequences for their horses. "They need to be a little more cognizant of their horses," Pack says.
He laments the industry's loss of some of its most savvy trainers, who brought lifetimes of experience to the racetrack every day. He says that the years of diminishing purses at the state's racetracks drove a lot of experienced horsemen out of the business, but sees the introduction of slots as the opening of a door for their re-entry. "We're hoping to bring the horse people back into the game," he says. "With the influx of money and the tremendous breeding program, we will attract some of those experienced horse people back into this industry."
Pack says the AAEP's Regulatory Veterinarians—the veterinarians who work at the country's racetracks—are going to monitor catastrophic breakdowns on synthetic surfaces. Pennsylvania veterinarians will be able to get more data from Presque Isle Downs since they'll be running a longer meet this year. Presque Isle Downs used Tapeta Footings of North East, Maryland for the track surface.
Beyond the debate about surface, it's clear that the issue of catastrophic injuries is complicated by a multitude of factors. The fact that there is now the foundation for developing consistent, reliable data about track injuries, and industry-wide commitment to collecting and using the data, means that hundreds of people are looking at catastrophic injuries in ways they've never looked at them before.