03/31/2014 5:18PM

Equine fatality rate down slightly in 2013; artificial surfaces remain safer

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The fatality rate for U.S. Thoroughbreds on artificial surfaces continued to be sharply lower than the fatality rate on dirt surfaces in 2013, according to data released by The Jockey Club on Monday from the Equine Injury Database.

The 2013 fatality rate for artificial surfaces was 1.22 per 1,000 starts, well below the 2.11 rate on dirt surfaces, according to the data. In each year since the Equine Injury Database was launched five years ago, the fatality rate on artificial surfaces has been well below the dirt rate, a finding that became statistically significant several years ago.

The fatality rate on turf surfaces dropped from 1.74 per 1,000 starts in 2012 to 1.38 per 1,000 starts last year, according to the data, a decline of 20 percent.

Overall, the fatality rate for all starts in 2013 was 1.90 per 1,000, down slightly from 1.92 in 2012. The total fatality rate has dropped approximately 5 percent in the past five years, from 2.00 per 1,000 starts in the first year measured, 2009.

The 2013 data also continued to show that the fatality rate in races run at six furlongs or shorter was higher than the rates for longer races. In 2013, horses suffered fatalities in sprints at a rate of 2.39 per 1,000 starts, compared with a rate of 1.39 in races at one mile or longer. The 1.39 rate in 2013 was sharply lower than the 1.80 rate in 2012 and well below the five-year average of 1.75 for longer races.

The fatality rate among 2-year-old runners shot up in 2013 to 1.63 per 1,000 starts, from 1.39 in 2012 and well above the five-year average of 1.41. Horses ages 4 or older continued to show the highest fatality rate among all age groups, at 2.00 per 1,000 starts.

Although data continues to show that artificial surfaces are safer on average than dirt surfaces, the movement toward installing the surfaces has waned considerably over the past several years. Last year, Del Mar announced that it would replace its artificial surface with a dirt surface for the 2015 meet, following Santa Anita’s decision to replace its artificial track late in 2010.

In addition, there has been speculation that Keeneland, once one of the most vocal advocates for artificial surfaces, might replace its artificial track, following equivocal statements from track officials in recent months about their long-term commitment to the surface.

Many horseplayers and some horsemen have grumbled about artificial surfaces despite the data showing that they are safer. Many track superintendents also say that dirt surfaces can be made as safe as artificial surfaces with the right care and maintenance, since fatality rates vary considerably from track to track.

The Equine Injury Database was launched in 2009 with the participation of nearly every major racetrack in the United States. The tracks are required to report any injury that results in a fatality within 72 hours of a race.