By Joe Bianca
In the fifth and final installment of a series of Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation webinars that took the place of the canceled ninth annual Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit, Drs. Tim Parkin and Mary Scollay examined Tuesday The Jockey Club's Equine Injury Database (EID) and its findings since being launched in 2009.
“The genesis of the EID goes back to Barbaro,” explained Scollay, the executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium. “When he was injured in the Preakness, a lot of attention and phone calls were directed to regulatory veterinarians across the country with questions like, 'How often does this happen?', 'How often do horses recover from this injury?' And none of us had any answers. It was a glaring deficiency that we couldn't speak to our stewardship of the horse in terms of knowing what happened to them after they were injured.”
The EID was launched in July 2008 to identify the frequency, type and outcome of racing injuries, use that data to flag horses with increased risk of injury and eventually serve as a guideline for preventing and minimizing racehorse injuries, particularly fatal ones.
Now with over a decade of statistics in its database, some conclusions can be drawn from the project, and its key findings were shared and analyzed in a visual presentation by Dr. Parkin, professor of veterinary epidemiology at the University of Glasgow.
The most important metric, and one that has shown unmistakable progress since the launch of the EID, is the Thoroughbred fatality rate, which counts racing related-deaths that occur up to 72 hours after a horse has run. When the first full year of stats were taken in 2009, the EID showed a fatality rate of 2.0 per 1,000 starts. That number has steadily fallen and, after a slight uptick in 2017 and 2018, fell to its lowest recorded rate, 1.53, in 2019.
“If the number of starts are constant, that would represent 135 fewer horse dying per year,” said Parkin. “That is significant progress from where we were 10 years ago.”
The EID breaks down its statistics and fatality rates by race surface, horse age and race distance. All three major surfaces in North America–dirt, turf and synthetic–have seen declines of at least 20% in their fatality rates since the EID's launch, though Dr. Parkin explained that turf racing has shown it is the most volatile of the three in its results.
“Interestingly on turf, it does seem to be a slightly more wavy, less consistent reduction,” he said. “It goes up a bit, down a bit. In my mind, that relates to the different extreme weather conditions you might see from year to year. Largely, that's something that's uncontrollable.”
Parkin then outlined the known risk factors that make horses more likely to break down, the largest of which is previous injury. For every previous EID-reported injury, the risk of a fatal injury to a horse during racing increases by 61%, and the risk automatically increases for every future start. And unsurprisingly, being on the veterinarians' list is a significant risk factor for fatal injury.
Additionally, horses who start their careers later than two years old face much higher risks.
“There's a very significant residual effect to starting horses later in their career than two,” Parkin said. “It's important to get some significant exercise in those 2-year-olds for their bones to adapt to the racing they're going to face through the rest of their career.”
Another risk factor for horses is how often they change trainers. The EID found that for every month spent with the same trainer, risk of fatality decreases by 1-2%. If a horse is making its first start with a new trainer, its risk of a fatal injury is immediately increased by about 28% and slowly comes down as the horse gets more time with that trainer.
“This is likely to be in part due to lack of familiarity with the horse and its veterinary history,” Parkin said. “Sharing veterinary histories can only be a good thing as a horse moves from trainer to trainer.”
As races get longer in distance, the risk of fatality slowly decreases, according to the numbers. The most risky races in America are dirt races at six furlongs or shorter, and according to Parkin there has been a 2-3% reduction in the number of those races carded.
“To summarize, there's been a clear improvement on all surfaces since 2009 and clearly some things are working well,” Parkin said. “There's been some regulatory change, some attitudinal change and, just raising everyone's awareness in the industry of the importance of equine welfare is really important. Certainly with the situation last year at Santa Anita, it's getting across to everyone in the industry. We hear it over here too. There's a lot more pressure about the social license to carry on racing.”
One area that still needs further regulation and sticks out as a particularly risky sector of the sport is claiming races. According to the data, the fatality rate in claiming and maiden claiming races is significantly higher–1.8 to 1.9 per 1,000 starts, compared to 1.45 in allowance races. Parkin found that risk increases rapidly in a horse's first five starts as a claimer before leveling off and slowly starting to decline.
“The message here is within the first few starts as a claimer, risk increases significantly,” he said. “And horses that start very early in their career as a claimer are at the greatest risk.”
A regulatory intervention that Parkin said has helped the safety of claiming races is the addition of voided claim rules (VCR). The rules automatically void any claim when a horse dies or is euthanized after a race, and in some cases if a horse has to be put on a vet's list after the race due to lameness. Claiming races at tracks with VCR have a 1.6 fatality rate compared to 2.2 for tracks without any VCR rules, and the greatest decrease came at tracks with Type 1 (fatality and vet list) rules.
“I would encourage greater use of these void claim rules at tracks that have yet to use them,” Parkin said.
The overall takeaway from the EID is that, despite the negative press racing has received in the past year or two, the sport's safety record is heading in the right direction. And while there are many more strides to make, particularly in the claiming game, having a vast database on equine injuries where one didn't exist until recently has provided direction and empirical lessons on what works in keeping horses safer.
“Larry Bramlage stood up at the 2006 Welfare and Safety Summit and challenged us to reduce fatalities by 50%,” Scollay said. “We've successfully reduced our injury currents and we're halfway there. We've reduced it by 25%. At the end of the day, we're doing something right and are able to sustain that. I think that's a really important message to get out there, that our work is paying off.”