10/16/2012 4:28PM

Keeneland summit: Claiming horses found to be at greater risk

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Researchers studying data collected over the past three years on injuries sustained by horses at racetracks have concluded that horses running in claiming races are at far higher risk of breaking down than horses who run in non-claiming races.

The finding dovetails with a widespread belief in the racing industry that claiming horses suffer breakdowns more frequently than non-claiming horses. The researchers have concluded from the data that horses in claiming races are 1.8 times more likely to suffer a fatal injury than horses in non-claiming races.

The latest analysis of the data also continued to show a statistically significant difference between the rate of catastrophic injuries on artificial surfaces when compared with dirt surfaces and turf surfaces. Over the past three years, horses running on synthetic surfaces have suffered catastrophic injuries at a rate of 1.3 per 1,000 starts, whereas horses running on turf had a 1.6 rate and dirt horses had a 2.0 rate, slightly higher than the overall rate of 1.9, according to researchers.

Dr. Tim Parkin, a University of Glasgow epidemiologist, outlined the results of the latest analysis on Tuesday during the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit at Keeneland. Parkin had conducted the previous analyses of the data as well.

The goal of the analysis of the data has been to identify the risk factors for catastrophic breakdowns so that those horses at highest risk of a breakdown can be subjected to additional scrutiny by examining vets. Ultimately, researchers hope to begin bringing down the catastrophic injury rate by using the data to recommend horse management practices as well.

According to Parkin, if all the highest risk factors were grouped together on one horse, a single horse could have a “50- to 60-fold” higher rate of risk for a catastrophic injury than another horse. However, because the risk of a catastrophic breakdown is already low – about 0.2 percent for any horse – that means that the theoretical highest risk horse may only be at a 1 percent risk for a breakdown (whereas the lowest-risk horse might be at a 0.02 percent risk).

“The important thing is to emphasize which of the risk factors are most important,” Parkin said.

According to Parkin, the latest analysis identified seven major risk factors for horses in claiming races. Those deemed to be at greater risk were intact males (compared to geldings and fillies and mares); a higher relative ratio of the race’s purse to the race’s claiming price; a horse who is 3 years old or older; a horse who is dropping in claiming price compared to the previous start; and three factors related to the frequency with which the horse has raced in the past 12 months. The most significant finding in that trio was that horses who had received six-month breaks in the past year were less likely to break down.

Several of the risk factors identified in the analyses have already been incorporated in the veterinary protocols used by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission when performing prerace exams, according to Dr. Mary Scollay, the commission’s equine medical director. Using those risk factors as flags, along with others that Scollay said she had identified during her career as a regulatory veterinarian – such as frequent rider changes and postrace drug tests that show legal traces of multiple painkillers – state vets in Kentucky are now identifying “horses of interest” for additional scrutiny in prerace exams. In addition, they are targeting the horses deemed to be at risk for “out-of-competition” exams in an effort to head off injuries before a horse is entered to race, Scollay said.

“It’s really important to get the right horse on the radar screen, and if we do that it improves everyone’s decision-making,” Scollay said.

In June, the Jockey Club announced that it was planning to send alerts out to racing offices and state veterinarians if a computer analysis of a horse’s past-performance information produced a high risk factor. That system, which would allow prerace vets to subject a horse to additional scrutiny, “remains in development,” said Bob Curran, a spokesperson for the Jockey Club.

The release of the latest data was the highlight of the first day of the two-day summit, which is being held for the fourth time. The project to develop an equine-injury database was launched after the first summit in 2006.

Approximately 100 people were in attendance at Keeneland on Tuesday to hear the day’s worth of presentations. The presentations were also streamed live over the Internet.

An additional highlight was a presentation by Dr. Larry Bramlage, the renowned equine surgeon at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital outside of Lexington. Bramlage focused his presentation on how bone restructures and remodels in response to stress, and he made several recommendations for how to minimize the risk of a horse suffering a catastrophic bone fracture. The recommendations included working horses at full speed for only one furlong, the training of horses over different surfaces regularly, and the frequent use of two to three months of turnout to allow stressed bones to heal.