02/11/2009 1:00AM

Turfway has sharp decline in fatalities


Turfway Park in northern Kentucky has had two catastrophic breakdowns since Jan. 1, track officials said on Wednesday, a sharp reversal of the figures in December, when eight horses died because of injuries at the track.

The rash of December breakdowns had sounded alarms among racing officials because of Turfway's relatively safe track record since the installation of an artificial racing surface in late 2005. Since that time, horses at Turfway Park have suffered catastrophic injuries at a rate of just over 1 horse per 1,000 starts, about 33 percent lower than national rates for artificial surfaces and half the overall national rate on conventional dirt and turf surfaces, according to recent data from racing officials who are tracking catastrophic injuries.

Bob Elliston, the president of Turfway Park, said that both January catastrophic injuries occurred in the first week of 2009. He said that track officials had been consulting with veterinarians and regulatory officials in an attempt to find a reason for the December breakdowns and the January decline, but have been unable to find a satisfactory answer.

Turfway Park banned the use of rear toe-grab horseshoes beginning in September. But after consulting veterinarians and trainers, the track lifted the ban as of Jan. 1, while keeping in place a prohibition on front toe-grab horseshoes.

Elliston said that the ban on rear toe grabs may have had an impact on the catastrophic-breakdown rate, but he also said he was unsure of the correlation because the catastrophic-injury rate did not go up for the one-month September meet, when the shoes were also banned.

"We had a group of practitioners and horsemen who approached us late in December who said they had found a commonality among some of the injuries and that it could possibly have been related to a torsional effect on the motion of the horse without back toe-grabs," Elliston said.

Turfway Park has been "aggressively" grooming its artificial surface in January, Elliston said, and has been collecting information on all injuries that occur at the track from the connections of the injured horses. But because of the limited one-month data set, Elliston was reluctant to say whether those practices had contributed to the lower breakdown rate.

Catastrophic injuries have been a focus of the racing industry since the advent of artificial surfaces four years ago. Pressure on the industry to address racetrack deaths increased during the 2008 Triple Crown following the death of Eight Belles after her second-place finish in the Kentucky Derby.

Fair Grounds in New Orleans and Santa Anita Park have also suffered higher-than-usual rates of injuries this winter. Fair Grounds runs on a dirt surface, and Santa Anita runs on an artificial surface.