04/29/2009 12:00AM

Tracking safety efforts, one year later


Inside of Gate 17 at Churchill Downs, visitors can handle jockey helmets, whips, and safety vests at an exhibit called "Safety From Start to Finish." Audio and video presentations tell about Churchill's attempts to make its track safer for horses and riders and to help gather data on track maintenance and racehorse injuries.

The exhibit, which opened last fall, is part of the new public face of racing, which has found itself in the unwelcome glare of animal-welfare advocates since the breakdown of the filly Eight Belles in the 2008 Kentucky Derby - the first fatality in the race's 134-year history.

To track officials, the exhibit addresses the need to publicize Churchill's safety efforts, but it is also part of a much larger effort by the racing industry. In October, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association launched its Safety and Integrity Alliance, a voluntary accreditation program that requires tracks to conform to a laundry list of standards. Not surprisingly, the NTRA put Churchill, the track that issues the most press passes, first in line for accreditation.

But to critics of racing, the question remains: How much has the industry done since the death of Eight Belles? Although exact figures are not available, about 1,000 horses die each year from racing-related injuries.

Churchill officials insist that real change has accompanied the racing industry's efforts over the past year. The administration of anabolic steroids is no longer unregulated, due to Kentucky rules that went into force last year. Front toe-grab horseshoes are banned in the Derby for the first time, though data connecting the shoes with significantly higher rates of catastrophic breakdown had been published a decade earlier. The whips that jockeys will use on Derby Day are somewhat shorter, somewhat softer, somewhat more pliant. Horses that have not yet reached their true second birthday are prohibited from racing.

"These are real differences, real changes," said Jim Gates, the general manager of the track. "It's true that a lot of what has happened was in conjunction with what was going on in the rest of the industry, but it's also true that we've made safety our priority for years, and we weren't getting that story out."

The brunt of the criticism lodged at racing over the past year concerned the use of medication, the fragility that is allegedly being bred into racehorses, and the fate of horses who can no longer compete on the racetrack. These are difficult criticisms to counter. For one, there is no data showing that drugs are contributing to injury rates, nor is there data to prove that the breed is any more fragile than it once was (even though average starts per horse have been in sharp decline for two decades). And the care of retired racehorses is a notoriously difficult problem; a troubling number of racehorses can end up in slaughterhouses or neglected on farms.

Dr. Larry Bramlage, a surgeon at Rood and Riddle Equine Clinic outside of Lexington who is a past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, said that the racing industry is making progress in safety by attempting to determine the factors that contribute to racehorse injuries. He pointed to national projects to gather data on injuries and determine the racing-surface factors that can influence those rates.

Still, Bramlage cautioned that there are no easy solutions. In the same way that fatal accidents are inevitable when you allow people to drive cars, as long as racehorses are allowed on racetracks, some will be hurt and some will die. And the industry is still years away from data that may help it limit the problem. Horses are fragile, and their injuries are often life-threatening, whether those injuries occur on racetracks or in the wild.

"There is no short-term fix," Bramlage said. "If you look at the Kentucky Derby, it's probably the last race you'd want to examine or make changes to, because it's been one of the safest events in racing. And you don't want to do something to make [the Eight Belles] fatality force you into doing something that doesn't make sense. That being said, we have a lot of research under way that should be able to help us improve our knowledge of how to build a safe racetrack. Actually, it's amazing that we weren't doing that before."

Alex Waldrop, the chief executive officer of the NTRA, acknowledged that the safety initiatives and changes in Kentucky and elsewhere almost certainly wouldn't have prevented the death of Eight Belles. But that doesn't mean that the industry can shrug its shoulders and move on as it has in the past.

"The most important effort we can make is to find out more information about why catastrophic injuries occur," Waldrop said. "We don't know enough about that. There are plenty of anecdotes, there are plenty of stories, but there are too many anecdotes and not enough science."

Dr. Mick Peterson, a University of Maine bioengineering specialist, is one of the scientists enlisted to begin to collect that data. Recently, a handful of racetracks and racing organizations, including Churchill Downs Inc. and the Jockey Club, committed to finance a laboratory co-headed by Peterson to conduct scientific testing on racing surfaces. Peterson typically shows up at a racetrack with a bio-engineered mechanical hoof and ground-penetrating radar.

So far, Peterson said, data from surface studies is not conclusively pointing to any silver bullet to reduce injuries. One factor that has begun to become apparent, Peterson said, is that a track needs to be consistent from one stride to the next, so that a horse does not take the proverbial bad step. Artificial surfaces also seem to have a measurable impact on catastrophic injury rates, but he cautioned that the data held up best in geographic areas where traditional dirt tracks were difficult to keep consistent.

The most important change that Peterson has seen over the past two years is that racetracks have begun cooperating with each other and sharing data.

"Catastrophic injuries are pretty rare," in a statistical sense, Peterson said, at about 2 per 1,000 starts. "Don't take this the wrong way, but that's a problem, because it takes a lot of data to prove a statistical link."

Will the general public have the patience to wait for that data? What will happen this year if another horse breaks down in a Triple Crown race, following the death of Eight Belles, the breakdown of Barbaro in the Preakness, and other deaths?

Wayne Pacelle, the president of the Humane Society of the United States, remains skeptical about the industry's efforts. While the humane society is not opposed to horse racing in principle, Pacelle sees the same problems this year as last, and he criticized racing for failing to embrace a national regulatory structure. The NTRA effort is admirable, he said, but racing still has no way to punish and get rid of bad actors.

"How is the horse racing industry going to clean up some of their problems if it's balkanized?" Pacelle said. "Who is there to impose authority? You have new rules without any enforcement. When you have that situation, you are ultimately going to be unsuccessful in changing behavior."

Waldrop counters that the NTRA's voluntary program "holds the industry's feet to the fire." Racetracks will take larger steps in the future, as the NTRA's code is revised to reflect the results of the industry's ongoing studies, he said.

"We don't want to give the impression that our efforts will eliminate injuries," Waldrop said. "But we can do better. We can do more. We are doing more. You have to remember that safety and integrity is a process. It's not something you arrive at one day. It's continual. It takes time, and it always will."