03/13/2015 12:05PM

Fatality rates virtually unchanged in 2014


Fatality rates at tracks participating in an industry-maintained database were virtually unchanged in 2014 compared with 2013, according to figures released Friday by The Jockey Club, and synthetic starts continued to show the lowest fatality rate by far among the three racing surfaces in use at North American tracks.

The overall fatality rate in 2014 was 1.89 per 1,000 starts, down only slightly from the 2013 rate of 1.90. Over the past six years of tracking the data on fatality rates, the overall rate is 1.91, according to Jockey Club figures, despite pockets of aggressive efforts within the industry over the same time frame to reduce the figure by implementing stricter medication rules, emphasizing the importance of pre-race veterinary exams, and better identifying at-risk horses.

The synthetic fatality rate in 2014 was 1.20 per 1,000 starts, virtually even with the 2013 figure. On dirt, the rate was 2.02 per 1,000 starts, meaning that nearly one more horse died per 1,000 starts on dirt than on a synthetic surface. The dirt rate was down 4.3 percent compared with the 2013 figure of 2.11.

The turf rate was 1.75 per 1,000 starts in 2014, a jump of 27 percent vs. a 1.38 rate in 2013, but the 2013 figure had dropped 20 percent compared with the 2012 rate, which was 1.74. Over the past six years, the fatality rate on turf was 1.65 per 1,000 starts, so the 2014 rate trended back toward the long-term average. With 50,366 turf starts and 88 deaths in 2014, the difference between a 1.75 rate and a 1.65 rate is five fatalities.

Fatality rates on various surfaces continue to generate intense controversy in some quarters of the industry, especially when comparing the difference between fatality rates on dirt and synthetic surfaces. Because only a handful of tracks continue to use synthetic tracks, there are far fewer starts on the surfaces than on dirt surfaces. But Dr. Tim Parkin, an epidemiologist at the University of Glasgow who serves as a consultant on the database, declared the data on synthetic starts to be statistically significant several years ago, meaning the results could not be generated by chance.

This year, both Del Mar and Keeneland ripped out their artificial surfaces in favor of reinstalling dirt tracks – Del Mar at the end of the year and Keeneland between its spring and fall meets. The tracks that continue to use artificial surfaces are Arlington Park outside Chicago, Golden Gate Fields in Northern California, Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania, Turfway Park in northern Kentucky, and Woodbine in suburban Toronto.

Over the six years of the project, the fatality rate on artificial surfaces has hovered around its long-term average of 1.22 per 1,000 starts, though the rate in the first year of the project (2009) was 1.49 per 1,000 starts. The dirt rate in each year has clustered around the long-term average of 2.07, hitting a high of 2.11 in 2013 and a low of 2.02 in the latest year.

The overall rate also is not indicative of the rate in some jurisdictions. Notably, Kentucky’s overall fatality rate has declined from a high of 1.73 per 1,000 starts in 2007 to 1.11 per 1,000 starts in 2014, with the rate dipping in five of the eight years, according to commission data. At Finger Lakes, where Lisa Hanelt, the chief examining veterinarian, has implemented an aggressive risk-profiling system based on injury data, the racing fatality rate has dropped an astounding 58 percent from 2010 to 2014, from 3.49 per 1,000 starts to 1.48 per 1,000 starts, according to an examination of New York data in an article that appeared in the online publication Thoroughbred Racing Commentary.

Overall, races at shorter than six furlongs continued to show the highest rate of catastrophic breakdown in 2014, with 2.26 fatalities per 1,000 starts and a six-year average of 2.25. The six-year average for races at six furlongs to a mile is 1.82, while the rate for races longer than one mile is 1.74.

Two-year-olds also continued to show the lowest fatality rate – 1.34 per 1,000 starts in 2014 and a six-year average of 1.40 – when compared to 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds or older. The 3-year-old rate jumped to 2.08 per 1,000 starts in 2014 compared with the six-year average of 1.89, while the 4-year-old or older rate was 1.87 in 2014 compared with the six-year average of 1.98.