Updated on 03/08/2013 6:13PM

Fatality rate continues to be lower on synthetic than dirt tracks, report says

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The fatality rate for Thoroughbred horses running on synthetic surfaces continues to be far lower than the rate on dirt and turf surfaces, according to a Friday release by the Jockey Club of updated figures gleaned from the Equine Injury Database.

In 2012, the fatality rate per 1,000 starts on synthetic surfaces was 1.03, half the 2.10 rate for dirt surfaces, according to the data. On turf, the fatality rate was 1.74 per 1,000 starts.

A difference between the fatality rates first showed up in the 2009 data, when horses running on synthetic surfaces had a 1.49 fatality rate per 1,000 starts and dirt horses had a 2.10 rate. Since then, the fatality rate on synthetic surfaces has fallen every year, while the dirt rate has held steady.

Epidemiologists studying the data said that the difference in the rate first became statistically significant through the end of 2010, when the sample size for the number of races in the database grew to a sufficient size. The release of the updated data was based on an analysis of 1,532,418 starts through Dec. 31, 2012, with 196,944 of those starts on synthetic surfaces.

The data also continue to show that 2-year-olds are at much lower risk of suffering a catastrophic injury than older horses. The 2012 fatality rate for 2-year-olds was 1.39 per 1,000 starts from 27,316 total starts, while 3-year-olds had a 1.85 rate and horses 4 and up had a 2.01 rate.

Races at a distance of six furlongs or less had a 2.35 fatality rate, while races from six furlongs to a mile had a 1.78 rate and races greater than a mile had a 1.80 rate. The rate for the shortest distances has been higher than the rate for the longer races consistently in all four years of the study.

Synthetic surfaces have been installed at Keeneland, Del Mar, Hollywood, Woodbine, Arlington Park, Turfway Park, Golden Gate Fields, and Presque Isle Downs. Santa Anita also had a synthetic surface, but the track reinstalled a dirt surface in 2010.

Despite the significantly lower fatality rate on the surfaces, synthetic tracks have not been embraced by the industry at large. Many handicappers have complained about how races are run on the surfaces, while some horsemen have said that the tracks are ill-suited for horses with natural speed. In addition, the tracks have proven to be more difficult to maintain than manufacturers first advertised.

The new board at the New York Racing Association is exploring the installation of a synthetic surface for Aqueduct, where fatalities spiked during the track’s 2011-2012 winter meet.

The Equine Injury Database was first launched in 2008 in the wake of a renewed focus on equine safety. Since then, the vast majority of racetracks have agreed to participate. Supporters of the project are hoping that the data will help identify horses that are at risk of suffering catastrophic injuries before they are allowed to start.

“While the [overall] fatality rate has remained fairly static over the course of the past four years, the real significance today is that, with 1.5 million starts in the database, we have now established a baseline and we can begin to analyze the relationships between each of the individual factors,” said Dr. Tim Parkin, a University of Glasgow epidemiologist who conducts ongoing analyses of the data. “In the future, we will be able to design interventions based on these data and recommend actions that will reduce injuries and fatalities.”

Supplemental Tables of Equine Injury Database Statistics

  2009     2010  
  Starts Fatalities per
1,000 starts
  Starts Fatalities per
1,000 starts
Age     Age    
2 34,228 1.40 2 30,830 1.49
3 119,588 1.97 3 118,875 1.79
4+ 242,081 2.09 4+ 237,966 1.97
Surface     Surface    
Turf 45,456 1.94 Turf 50,701 1.60
Dirt 293,306 2.10 Dirt 286,584 2.04
Synthetic 57,135 1.49 Synthetic 50,386 1.21
Distance     Distance    
<6F 93,542 2.12 <6F 94,462 2.24
6F-8F 225,902 1.95 6F-8F 217,885 1.79
>8F 76,453 1.98 >8F 75,324 1.67
  2011     2012  
  Starts Fatalities per
1,000 starts
  Starts Fatalities per
1,000 starts
Age     Age    
2 30,035 1.20 2 27,316 1.39
3 113,039 1.98 3 108,545 1.85
4+ 236,211 1.92 4+ 233,704 2.01
Surface     Surface    
Turf 50,054 1.54 Turf 53,991 1.74
Dirt 283,531 2.07 Dirt 271,851 2.10
Synthetic 45,700 1.09 Synthetic 43,723 1.03
Distance     Distance    
<6F 93,872 2.16 <6F 88,536 2.35
6F-8F 215,327 1.76 6F-8F 214,525 1.78
>8F 70,086 1.85 >8F 66,504 1.80

Source: Jockey Club Equine Injury Database

Rick Baldwin More than 1 year ago
I think the use of steroids causes more breakdowns & early retirements than any surface. Bones start getting brittle when the horse nears three & worsens in the next few years. "Fatalities" are a bad measurement.
Norman Young More than 1 year ago
I would be interested in what type of shoe was warn be every horse fatalities because I firmly believe that is the largest reason for Fatalities. Wrong shoes case a lot of the injuries that lead to fatalities.
kingsailor2 More than 1 year ago
I view ANYTHING that the Jockey Club says with a grain of salt. One thing that is glaringly missing is the margin of error-- both numbers quoted may very well be within the margin of error of each other. Also, you cannot really say that the surface ALONE is the reason for "lower" fatalities -- if that conclusion is true at all. There may be many other factors, including type of races run on synthetics, time of year, number of horses in race, average jockey age . . . anything at all. I wouldn't give any weight to this study until I saw the credentials of a statistician -- not a vet, and definitely not a JC member.
Jim Mann II More than 1 year ago
I I'm really tired of these emotionally scarred pseudo (I love horses.) phonies. Their title should read: the horse is my God! I have loved horses for over 55 yrs. I have raised them. Doctored them. Laid out in a muddy field over night more times than I care to remember. Lost sleep. money, women, friends and health over them. But I have never worshipped or valued them above God or a human. God gave us horses for use. You evil animal worshipping creatures have taken food out of the mouths of the poor in foreign countries! All because "YOU" think it makes you a better person. You are wrong and you will be the cause of the deaths of 10s of thousands of horses; not to mention you are already helping in the cause of starvation thruout the world. You will destroy horse racing and all horse related events! You have already prevented others the privilege of owning horses by your worship of an animal. If you were starving or just hungry; you would be first to kill one and eat it. But anyone else is damned by you if they want or need to eat an animal! Go away! or realize you aren't the only one in this world. And not the only one who knows what is best! jim
Brandon Layer More than 1 year ago
I think the age stats are a little skewed because horses who make it to the track at two are usually more sound than horses who don't make it to the track by age two. If a horse runs as a two year old he probably had little issues with soundness. If a horse didn't race at two he probably already has soundness issues therefore is more likely to break down.
Rick Baldwin More than 1 year ago
Horses that don't run at two are often just not mature enough to run then.
Brandon Layer More than 1 year ago
The theory that horses are breaking down less on synthetic tracks because the tracks with synthetic surfaces tend to get better horses is 100% false. Turfway gets terrible horses in the winter. The majority of their purses are $5,000 during the winter yet they have the absolute lowest fatalities. The very year Turfway introduced their first synthetic track fatalities dropped drastically with the same caliber of horses. The horses stayed the same but the track changed and the fatalities went down instantly.
Brandon Layer More than 1 year ago
Also how do you explain Turfway having way fewer fatalities per race than Gulfstream, Santa Anita or Saratoga if it's about the caliber of horse?
Tom Smith More than 1 year ago
all you dirt lover make me laugh... santa anita dirt track is worst in the world
Curtis V Slewster More than 1 year ago
Right on par with your English. Your sentences & your horses.
Curtis V Slewster More than 1 year ago
Don't you just love these Statistics people. They always have an agenda. One can make Stats do what one wants. Just set the parameters. The guy from Glasgow. I can see his agenda from 10 miles away. How about we change the Title of the article to read::: "Turf racing has higher fatality rates than Plastic....So, we should do away with Grass racing.......".....Get rid of the this guy from Glasgow......
wolves More than 1 year ago
BTW, as you go through the cards, realize that 80% of the horses racing today will end up in the slaughterhouse. Very sad, but true.
Rick Baldwin More than 1 year ago
What would you do with them? Plant them in Arlington?
wolves More than 1 year ago
what about jockeys deeply inhaling the asbestos-like fibers over a 20 year period? Has that been considered?