04/01/2014 3:30PM

No one sure why fatality rate for racehorses isn't dropping

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The overall fatality rate for North American Thoroughbreds has remained relatively unchanged over the five years that injury data have been collected despite widespread efforts to improve the health and safety of racehorses over the same time frame, according to updated figures released on Monday afternoon by the Jockey Club.

The persistence of the overall fatality rate – within a range of 1.88 and 2.00 fatalities per 1,000 starts in each of the last five years – has begun to concern some racing officials, given the recent implementation of programs and practices designed to reduce fatal injuries, such as accreditation standards for tracks and best-practice recommendations for veterinary inspections.

Those same officials, however, also said it might be too early to expect a reduction in the overall rate given the newness of the programs and the inconsistency with which racetracks and racing commissions have adopted the programs and recommendations.

“Many of these reforms have not been applied uniformly, unfortunately,” said Dr. Mary Scollay, the equine medical director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. “We don’t know if there’s a subset that is not showing any improvement and a subset that is going the other way. [The overall rate] is a pretty broad brush.”

The overall fatality rate for 2013 was 1.90 per 1,000 starts, according to the updated data, released by the Jockey Club from the Equine Injury Database. The 2013 rate was a 5 percent drop from the 2.00 rate in 2009, the first year of the project. The rate was 1.88 in 2010 and 2011 before jumping to 1.92 in 2012, making the 2009 figure the outlier.

Dr. Scott Palmer, the equine medical director for the New York Gaming Commission, said that “it’s a fair question” to ask why the number has not declined. But he also pointed out that New York’s fatalities dropped 40 percent from 2012 to 2013 after the state and tracks implemented new policies in the wake of a spate of deaths at Aqueduct in 2012.

“What that tells me is that equine fatalities are an actionable item,” Palmer said. “People say we can’t get rid of all of them, but we can certainly do better.”

The 2013 data continued to show that the fatality rate on artificial surfaces is sharply lower than the fatality rate on dirt tracks, and they also continued to show that racing at short distances is more dangerous than racing at longer distances.

The 2013 fatality rate for artificial surfaces was 1.22 per 1,000 starts, according to the data, while the dirt-track rate was 2.11, 73 percent higher. The two rates have been sharply different in every year since 2009, and the difference became statistically significant three 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 and well below the five-year average of 1.63.

Despite the difference between the rates on artificial surfaces and dirt tracks, support for artificial surfaces among racetracks, horsemen, handicappers, and breeders has eroded considerably over the past several years. No track has installed an artificial surface in seven years, and Del Mar plans to replace its artificial surface for the 2015 racing season, following Santa Anita, which ripped out its artificial surface in 2011.

In addition, Keeneland officials have been uncharacteristically equivocal in recent weeks about their commitment to the track’s artificial surface, leading to the re-emergence of rumors that the track will soon announce plans to change the surface.

The 2013 data also continued to show that the fatality rate in races run at distances shorter than six furlongs was higher than the rates for longer races. In 2013, horses suffered fatalities in those sub-six-furlong sprints at a rate of 2.39 per 1,000 starts, compared with a rate of 1.39 in races longer than one mile. The 1.39 rate in 2013 may have been an outlier, however, because it was sharply lower than the 1.80 rate in 2012 and well below the five-year average of 1.75 for the longest 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, but still below the fatality rate for 3-year-olds and for horses 4 years old or older. Horses 4 years old or older continued to show the highest fatality rate among all age groups, at 2.00 per 1,000 starts, while 3-year-olds had an overall fatality rate of 1.87 per 1,000 starts.

The data released on Monday was broken out into only three categories: surface, distance, and age. Dr. Tim Parkin, the epidemiologist hired to conduct analysis of the data, is looking at many more categories of data, including class of horse and type of race, in the hopes of identifying reliable factors that would give regulators, horsemen, and track officials the capability of identifying horses that may be at high risk of injury.

Parkin was traveling on Tuesday and unavailable for comment.