03/17/2008 12:00AM

Study challenges injury claims


LEXINGTON, Ky. – Data collected over the last six months of 2007 through a uniform injury reporting system has not shown any significant difference in the rates of fatal injuries sustained by horses running on synthetic or dirt surfaces, according to the veterinarian who has compiled the reports.

During a presentation at the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit on Monday at Keeneland, Dr. Mary Scollay, the Florida state veterinarian, cautioned that the data did not represent a statistically significant set, and it did not include data from the four synthetic tracks in California. Other racing officials said Monday that fatal injuries have declined markedly after the installation of synthetic surfaces at many tracks. But Scollay’s data at least introduces questions regarding the validity of the claim that synthetic surfaces are safer than traditional dirt tracks. Scollay said she was “floored” by the similarity between the numbers of fatalities on dirt and synthetic surfaces.

The data was collected by Scollay from 42 racetracks that agreed last year to use a standardized reporting form for racetrack injuries, including Arlington Park, Keeneland, and Turfway, all of which race on a synthetic track. The form is being used to gather information on the types of injuries horses suffer while racing in order to identify potential problems or areas of research.

The data began to be collected on June 1, Scollay said, and no meaningful difference between injury rates on the two types of surfaces could be discerned. According to Scollay, the data showed 244 fatalities from 123,890 starters on dirt, for a ratio of 1.96 fatalities per 1,000 starts. For synthetic surfaces the ratio was 1.95, with 58 fatalities from 29,744 starts.

The study did not include data from racetracks in California, which has the largest concentration of tracks with synthetic surfaces. The California tracks declined to participate, state officials there said, because they have their own statewide system of reporting injuries. The California data has shown a marked decline in fatal racing injuries, according to that state’s racing and veterinary officials, with 3.18 fatalities per 1,000 starts on dirt surfaces in 2004-07 and 1.24 fatalities per 1,000 starts on synthetic surfaces in 2007.

In addition to concerns over the size of the statistical sample, Scollay also cited “anecdotal” evidence that trainers were sending unsound horses to run over synthetic surfaces because of a belief that the surfaces are a “vaccine” to injury.

“There has been some pushing of the envelope in which some horsemen are taking bigger chances” with sore or injured horses on synthetic surfaces, Scollay said.

The topic of synthetic surfaces was the dominant issue during a five-hour public presentation at the summit on Monday morning. The summit was first held in the fall of 2006 to focus the racing industry’s efforts on injuries, and since the inaugural summit, a number of racing officials have worked on subcommittees to address issues related to equine health.

Mick Peterson, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Maine who has consulted racetracks on the maintenance of synthetic surfaces, said that physical studies of the synthetic surfaces have proven that horses are subjected to lighter stress loads on them than on traditional dirt surfaces. But he stated that the racing industry needs to do far more study of the factors that affect synthetic surfaces.

“This is clearly an area that needs work,” Peterson said, citing the sensitivity of the surfaces to moisture and temperature changes.

Synthetic surfaces have been installed at 10 racetracks since 2005, when Turfway Park became the first track to replace its dirt surface. The tracks include Keeneland Racecourse, Woodbine, Arlington Park, Presque Isle Downs, and the California tracks Del Mar, Hollywood, Santa Anita, and Golden Gate.

Santa Anita’s synthetic surface has drawn criticism because of drainage problems. The track lost 11 days of racing after heavy rain in January and February. A new polymer was added to the Cushion Track mixture, and the problems appear to have been resolved, according to Richard Tedesco, Santa Anita’s track superintendent.

“Our injuries are down, we’re getting lots of compliments, and everything looks good,” Tedesco said. Santa Anita plans to replace its surface at the end of the meeting, track president Ron Charles said last month.