06/29/2016 1:42PM

Welfare and Safety Summit delivers some good advice for trainers and owners


The Jockey Club held its seventh Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit at Keeneland on Tuesday, and once again it offered some sound advice for trainers, some good information for owners and breeders, plus statistics on how racing is safer today than ever before, in part due to developments from previous editions of the conference. The one-day conference attracted some 200 people to Lexington, and was simulcast online. The event covered a variety of topics that included safety of racing surfaces, nutrition, racing regulations, medications, biosecurity, and equine health.

The summit, organized and underwritten by the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation and The Jockey Club, was first held in October 2006, and out of that first conference came the equine industry database (EID), now in its ninth year.

Dr. Tim Parkin, who is a member of the EID Scientific Advisory Committee, told the conference that the number of fatal injuries has declined by 19 percent since 2009. The EID database was first started in 2008, when the committee, funded by the Jockey Club and its subsidiaries, devised standards for collecting the data and received cooperation from tracks from around the country. The EID now has 2.5 million race starts in its database, as well as 4.5 million workouts, all of which are used for data analysis on factors in injuries. Parkin said that over the years, the team has identified some 20 risk factors.

Parkin noted that there was a considerable decline in fatal deaths per 1,000 starts from 2014 to 2015, dropping from 1.89 per 1,000 starts to 1.62 in 2015. He said that may in part be attributable to a higher degree of awareness of the issue. Other factors affecting the decline was an increase in the average number of days between starts; the length of time horses spent with one trainer increasing (the less of a turnover, the better); harmonization of medication regulations; and fewer races held on tracks that were labeled anything but fast, which is weather related.

Among the factors that are critical in affecting injuries, Parkin said the age of the first start was important, and the earlier the better, plus, “The first start is a relatively safe start.” He also noted that races at six furlongs or less had a greater risk for breakdowns.

In data released in conjunction with Parkin’s presentation, the EID database statistics that cover racing from 2009 to 2015 indicate that synthetic surfaces are still by far the safest surfaces in racing, even though a number of tracks have abandoned them in recent years. The number of fatal breakdowns per 1,000 starts on synthetic surfaces was 1.18 in 2015, compared with 1.78 on dirt and 1.22 on turf.

In races at less than six furlongs in 2015, the fatal injury incidence was 1.86, while at six furlongs to eight furlongs it was 1.58, and at greater than a mile it was 1.43.

Age was also a major factor in fatal breakdowns, as the more a horse raced the greater the chance of injury. At age 2, the incidence per 1,000 starts was 1.19; at 3, it was 1.50; and for 4 and older, it was 1.72.

Longtime owner and breeder Bill Casner, who once co-owned WinStar Farm in Lexington, Ky., gave one of the most interesting and practical presentations at the summit. Casner talked about respiratory passages and the need for a healthy environment for horses. He said that half of all horses have respiratory problems, which effectively hinders their racing ability.

“I always tried to use good science to try to improve the welfare of my horses,” said Casner, who has been racing horses without the use of the diuretic Lasix for a number of years. “My presentation is on barn management practices that I have employed over the years to improve equine health.”

He noted that many horses live in stalls that are incubators for dust, mold, and fungi, and the barns are decades old and most often have never been thoroughly cleaned. Casner noted that he built barns at WinStar that were all metal, have high ceilings, and open fronts to facilitate air flow. The metal barns can be cleaned far better than the wood barns found at most every track in the country.

“Many vets believe that inflammatory airway diseases contribute to bleeding,” he said, and there are countless ways that horses’ airways are being compromised by poor practices, such as using box fans in shed rows, storing hay and straw in barns, and not cleaning stalls properly.

“Above the stalls, hay and straw are stored, and every time someone goes up there, dust is knocked loose,” Casner said. “Extremely small dust particles can migrate into the airway tract.”

He said wood shavings or pellets are the preferred bedding, since they are virtually dust free and free of pathogens.

When a trainer is moving their horses from one track to another, Casner said they should send someone ahead to clean the stalls thoroughly, and to use a fogger that kills microbes. Most track barns, he notes, have never been thoroughly cleaned and the pathogens have been building up for decades. He suggests using a power washer in every stall, and then an anti-microbial fogger.

“Three years ago, we started fogging stalls with antimicrobials,” he said. “Believe it or not, we have not had one cough, one snot, one temperature in the last three years. It’s also virtually eliminated our skin disease. Let me repeat that, we have not had one temperature or cough in the last three years.

“My trainer Eion Harty uses the fogger and has reduced the number of respiratory problems with his horses. Disinfecting stalls and using foggers has gone far beyond what I had hoped.

“We have windows of opportunities with these horses, and if you miss that, you’ll never get it back.”

On a panel that examined the issue of the use of the crop in racing, all three panelists – Ramon Dominguez, Chris McCarron, and Gunnar Lindberg – agreed that the public’s perception of the use of the whip is not positive and detrimental to racing long term.

“You have got to limit the number of strikes,” said Lindberg, senior racing official with the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario. “We’re in the entertainment industry, and if we want to get more people involved, we can’t give the impression that we are abusing horses.

“We’re trying to attract new people with an industry in decline.”

Racing Hall of Fame rider McCarron, said he changed his attitude about the crop and the way he rode from the time he started, and the change was for the better and yielded better results.

“Early in my career, I thought it was my job to make the horse to run,” McCarron said. “Later I learned they are trying hard as hard as they can and they did not need me to hit them. The perception is that horses don’t feel the whip, but that’s not true. My style and attitude toward the crop changed from the beginning of my career to the end of my career.”

McCarron admitted that it’s easier sometimes to fall back on using the whip for a number of reasons, saying the trainer may sometimes say to use the whip liberally and it was easier sometimes for the rider to whip.

“It’s much more strenuous to hand ride a horse than use a stick,” he said. “You sometimes go to the whip to get a breather.”

Because money wagered is at stake, all three panelists said that the public may not like seeing the use of the whip but they also want to see the horse and rider going all out to win.

“It’s going to be difficult to educate the trainers,” McCarron said. “And it’s going to be more difficult to educate the public. They want to see that you’re giving every possible effort you can to win.”

Said retired rider Dominguez, “In the 10 years I rode, I won most of my races without using the riding crop at all. But there are some cases where you need it.

“The best jockey is the one that the horse feels the least.”

In the last panel of the day, three veterinarians – Larry Bramlage, Mary Scollay, and Kevin Dunlavy –  discussed the importance of physical inspection and lameness diagnosis, touching on prerace inspections and having to scratch horses. Their job is to protect the horse – and therefore the public – to ensure an unsound horse does not race and get injured.

Scollay had the most stunning statistic about veterinary scratches on race day.

“Twenty-two percent of the horses scratched for unsoundness never race again,” Scollay said.

Bramlage said that horses like to train and race, and when a horse does not want to run, that’s a sign that something is wrong.

“I think that trainers today are evolving out of the concept that lameness is the disease,” Bramlage said. “Racing a horse that does poorly is not an advantage for the owner and it’s not an advantage for the trainer.

“An unhappy horse is not a good thing. Healthy horses like to train. If something goes wrong and they’re not ready to train, something is going on with that horse.”

Scollay said that it’s beneficial to see a horse before race day so that the veterinarian is familiar with the horse and knows any individual idiosyncrasies.

“It’s a learning process,” Scollay said. “Sometimes trainers will ask you to look at horses in the barn because they you want to know the horse.”