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