04/01/2014 3:30PM

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


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.


Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Synthetic tracks are 'barely' better, not 'greatly' better than traditional dirt. Frankly I'm always surprised that there aren't more horses tragically breaking down than there already are. I'm not a subscriber to the thought that illegal narcotics will nullify a horse breaking down--just because a horse is tweaked (and I'm NOT condoning it, EVER) out of his mind doesn't mean his limbs will not succumb. Horses are athletes JUST like people. They have wear and tear just like humans. It's always tragic and nobody likes it when a horse pulls up bad, and especially if they fall. The only blessing they have is immediate euthanasia. God bless the horses left in fields to starve, colic, catastrophic injuries neglected or not known about. They aren't so lucky. I love horses! Oh yes I do. But I also love racing. And we have to take with it what comes with it. Super athlete horses in all disciplines in the world ALL have a potential for traumatic injuries and death. MOST of them don't get injured. That's the part we have to concentrate on.
Nancy Spence More than 1 year ago
So, synthetic surfaces are better for horses and now every track is getting rid of them in the U.S? Combined with the drug use, it's no wonder the sport is losing popularity. I'm a "younger generation" horseplayer and getting more fed up with the industry every day. I love horse racing, but love horses more. Get your act together!
Brad Klement More than 1 year ago
Everyone blames breeding and drugs. What were the stat's back in the 70-80's? Were they a lot lower back then?
Teresa Bossow More than 1 year ago
I see that keenland has decided to go dirt by fall. Delmar too. The only reason Delmar is going dirt is to get the breeders cup in the future and you can bet same in Lexington. Why can't they run a breeders cup on synthetic? If they gave synthetic tracks a chance at a breeders cup no one would want dirt again. If synthetic is safer for the horses maybe big money races should only be run on the safest tracks. It is not about the horses and safety it is all about big money!
Bruce Alexander More than 1 year ago
several factors lead to racehorses breaking down starting with the design of the horse ,hard to have fast agile and extremely durable in the same package. Im not suggesting changing that but, the number 2 reason is surfaces themselves. 30 years ago I believe all or at least most tracks had clay bottom base,which absorbed the shock from the materials above .All but a very few tracks have either limestone/stone dust bases. They are designed not to shift or move in weather change and eliminate vertical drainage.Most tracks have guidelines eliminating elevated toe grabs on front shoes ,if you ran without grabs on tracks 30 years ago you would have been non competitive/The surfaces need more banking,straights and even more important turns.
Bob More than 1 year ago
You means no one in the industry wants to ADMIT why the fatality rate isn't dropping....every racing fan I have ever known is well aware of why the fatality rate isn't dropping. It's because of over-racing, but the money-grubbing industry insiders and the government entities that tax racing refuse to admit it!
Ray Sousa More than 1 year ago
Well lets see ill be the first to admit im not an expert but even to me it seems obvious that a combination of factors unique to our racing make it more prone to catastrophe..lets see ill start from most likely 1. excessive drug use 2.hard surfaces 3.unsound horses due to inbreeding 4.bad training practices especially with 2yos prepping for sales 5.races catering to bad and unsound horses ex. $2500 to $ 7500 claiming races. 6.the way claiming races are set up with rules that encourage the masking of injuries and unloading the horse through a race. 7.greed owners who race their horses way past their prime example REPOLE stables CAIXA ELECTRONICA. 8.winter racing in freezing weather.
Bugsy Anderson More than 1 year ago
All but the Repole comment are valid. There is a higher breakdown rate among younger horses. Elextronica was as sound as ever the race prior.
Nay Rod More than 1 year ago
I truly believe racing should begin at 3. 2 yrs. olds bones are still soft and not mature enough. Pushing babies to quality for points is part of the problem. Then these horse's are given so called suppliments. Also, breezing should be taken out of sales. Why would anyone purchase a 2 yrs. old with the fastest time. That's a disaster purchase in the making.
Michael Castellano More than 1 year ago
It's just common sense, really, shorter races, especially these 4 and 5 furlong sprints, put enormous stress on horses. Horses might get winded at too long a distance, but the breakdowns occur when horses have to run those 44 and change second halves and many are only of claimer quality and are being pushed to the absolute limit..
The Big B More than 1 year ago
Something seriously, conceptually, and fundamentally wrong with thoroughbred racing when one goes to the track, looks at the racing form, and sees almost every horse is on bute and lasix and/or some other medication(s). Does the sport care about horse health or not?
The Big B More than 1 year ago
And.....who are the veterinarians who are apparently dishing out these potent medications as though they're candy? Does it make sense that almost every horse needs these medications? The integrity of the veterinary profession comes into play.