03/10/2017 12:16PM

Racing fatalities drop to lowest known rate

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The overall fatality rate on all racing surfaces dropped in 2016 to 1.54 per 1,000 starts, the lowest rate recorded since a project was launched to collect data on fatalities beginning in 2009, according to figures released by The Jockey Club on Friday.

According to the data, 483 horses suffered fatal injuries within 72 hours of racing from 314,459 overall starts at U.S. tracks in 2016. The rate of 1.54 per 1,000 was down 5 percent from the 2015 rate of 1.62 and down 23 percent from the 2.00 rate recorded in 2009, according to the data.

The data do not include fatalities suffered during training, so the number of equine deaths occurring at racetracks is higher than the number recorded in the database.

The sustained two-year decline in the fatality rate has occurred as many racing commissions have adopted measures designed to identify at-risk horses prior to the horses starting in races. Many of those measures have relied on the data that have been collected since 2009 through a project called the Equine Injury Database. The vast majority of racetracks in North America have contributed data to the project.

“The sport, as a collective entity, has made a sustained difference that should serve as motivation to continue the search for new safety and welfare initiatives and to permanently eliminate the usage of the [phrase] ‘part of the game’ from the lexicon when discussing equine injuries,” Dr. Mary Scollay, the equine medical director for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, said in a statement.

:: View supplemental tables of equine injury database statistics for thoroughbreds

Racing continues to be buffeted by attacks from animal-welfare organizations about the injuries suffered by its athletes. Last year, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals organized daily pickets outside the gates of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club near San Diego, a development that Del Mar’s longtime general manager, Joe Harper, called, “The most dangerous thing to come to racing in my 40 years at racetracks.”

Racing’s fatality rate hovered near 1.90 per 1,000 starts from 2010-14, leading to concerns that the industry’s preliminary measures to address fatalities were failing to bear fruit. However, the drop in the rate in 2015 and the consistency of the rate in 2016 seem to suggest that the industry has made some progress.

The decline in the rates in 2015 and 2016 were in large part due to significant declines in the fatality rates on dirt and turf. The fatality rate on dirt dropped to 1.70 per 1,000 starts in 2016, down from 2.02 in 2014, while the fatality rate on turf dropped to 1.09 in 2016, down from 1.75 in 2014.

The fatality rate for artificial surfaces was 1.14 per 1,000 starts in 2016, generally consistent with the fatality rate on artificial surfaces in previous years. The fatality rate on artificial surfaces has consistently been far lower than the rate on any other surface, but in 2016, the turf rate was lower than the artificial-surface rate for the first time.

The fatality rate in 2016 continued to be higher for horses running in races shorter than six furlongs. In 2016, the rate in races shorter than six furlongs was 1.77 per 1,000 starts, compared with 1.46 for races run at six furlongs to a mile and 1.47 for races longer than one mile.

The fatality rate for 2-year-old horses in 2016 was 1.32, while the rate for 3-year-olds was 1.62. The rate for horses ages 4 or older was 1.53 in 2016, the first time that the rate for older horses was lower than the rate for 3-year-olds.