07/08/2014 1:18PM

State vets relying more on data to reduce fatalities


LEXINGTON, Ky. – Regulatory veterinarians are increasingly using injury data and the practices of other jurisdictions in determining how to identify at-risk horses before the horses run, according to participants on the opening-day panel on Tuesday at the Safety and Welfare of the Racehorse Summit at the Keeneland sales pavilion. 

The panelists – three regulatory veterinarians from New York, Kentucky, and Massachusetts and  Woodbine racetrack executive Scott Koch – said that data collected as part of the Equine Injury Database has helped them develop categories of horses that can be deemed to be at elevated risk of a catastrophic injury. As a result, horses deemed to be at risk are attracting more scrutiny in pre-race exams, while trainers with at-risk horses are being better educated about management practices that could lead to catastrophic injuries.

Dr. Mary Scollay, a panelist and the equine medical director for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, said that the increased reliance on data and the implementation of equine mortality reviews for catastrophic injuries in Kentucky has led to a belief among many regulatory veterinarians that fatal injuries can no longer be considered an inherent aspect of the sport.

“We must dispel the myth of inevitability,” Dr. Scollay said.

Dr. Scollay cited statistics at Turfway Park, which has long been considered a way station for feeble horses on the downside of their careers. For the past two years, the fatality rate at Turfway has been below 0.5 horses per 1,000 starts, one-quarter of the national rate of approximately 2.0 horses per start. Dr. Scollay said the rate dropped from a combination of factors, but that the most important factor has been that regulators, trainers, and track managers took an active role in attempting to reduce racetrack injuries through better management practices.

“That told me that nurture can beat nature,” Dr. Scollay said.

Still, it is clear that obtaining results in reducing catastrophic injuries has been uneven across the racing industry. Although Mike Ziegler, the executive director of the Safety and Integrity Alliance and the moderator of the panel, opened with a statement contending that “all this data is helping to make racing safer for all of its participants,” the most recent release of fatality rates shows that the rate has not budged materially since the Equine Injury Database was launched in 2008, hovering at 2.00 fatal injuries per 1,000 starts. That rate is at least double the reported fatality rates for many other major racing jurisdictions, including Great Britain, Japan, and Australia. (All three jurisdictions primarily race on grass, which has been shown to be a somewhat safer racing surface in the U.S.)

Dr. Lisa Hanelt, the examining veterinarian at Finger Lakes in upstate New York, said a recent examination of the shared characteristics of horses that suffered fatal breakdowns revealed several factors that indicated higher risks of injury. Those included a horse that remained a maiden after nine months of racing, especially one that was 3 years old or older; a horse that had relatively few starts at the track; a horses that had recently changed barns; and a horse that had recently been injected intra-articularly with a corticosteroid, the regulated anti-inflammatory medication.

Hanelt said she next asked herself whether the at-risk horses were “typical or atypical” of the general horse population at Finger Lakes, and she said she was somewhat surprised to find that the horses were atypical. She also cautioned that the risk factors of a racetrack’s population of horses could be different from other populations, but she also said that all regulatory veterinarians could identify those risk factors and adjust accordingly.

“It’s not anything special,” Hanelt said. “Make a spreadsheet. Look at horses. Identify your high-risk clusters.”

Dr. Jennifer Durenberger, the director of racing for the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, told the audience that Massachusetts has been focusing on changing the culture of racing by implementing new rules and holding trainers accountable. The new rules include requirements for working off the vet list for horses with overages for painkillers like phenylbutazone. Under the new rules, the state’s thresholds for painkillers apply during the work, and so far, two horses attempting to work off the vet list tested positive for excessive levels of the drug. Both horses, Durenberger said, displayed lameness in subsequent works and have not been allowed to race.

Massachusetts is one of a handful of states to have passed a new penalty system in which trainers are assigned points for medication violations. Durenberger said in Massachusetts, those points can be applied for drug tests performed on horses seeking to get off the vet’s list. One trainer whose horse tested positive for an overage of bute during a vet’s list workout is facing a suspension because of the assigned points, Durenberger said.

Durenberger said the focus on the use of bute is being driven by a concern that overuse of the medication is “taking the tools away” from regulatory vets by masking physiological problems during exams. But the focus is not just to penalize trainers, but rather to make them aware of the risks that the overuse of the drug is presenting to many horses.

“It’s not just changing the rules, it’s changing the culture,” Durenberger said.