JC / Railbird

Equine Safety

Brockton Delays

The racetrack at Brockton Fair

Planned racing at the Brockton Fair has been pushed back to August:

The property owner and the association both said that more time was needed to budget for administrative costs and to fix the inner rail of the track, which was damaged by a vandal last year who stole about 1,000 feet of the metal barrier to sell for scrap.

“We would have hoped to start a little bit sooner,” said Bill Lagorio, president of the Massachusetts Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. “We are hoping, with all things considered now, we’ll race in August, September and October. … We don’t mind going a little further into the fall because it’s nice racing weather anyway.”

If a meet at Brockton happens this year, training and racing will take place over four months on the five-furlong dirt track. Lagorio addressed safety concerns raised by observers about that plan:

Lagorio also responded to criticism of the track, which he said is mostly being leveled by a rival horse racing association that is participating in the six races at Suffolk Downs this year. Lagorio said that some people unfairly point to the injury of one horse when racing last took place at the Brockton Fairgrounds in 2001, but he said the sport inherently has its risks.

“There’s nothing not safe about Brockton,” Lagorio said.

Count me among the worried, and not because of anything that happened 15 years ago. Thanks to greater attention on safety issues, ongoing research, and the Equine Injury Database, we now know more about track surfaces, injuries, and risks than we did a decade ago. We know that dirt tracks consistently register more fatalities than turf or synthetic tracks, averaging 2.07 fatalities per 1000 starts from 2009-2014, compared to 1.65 for turf and 1.22 for synthetics. Over the same six years, races at distances less than six furlongs averaged 2.25 fatalities per 1000 starts, compared to 1.82 for races six to eight furlongs, and 1.74 for races longer than eight furlongs.

The work of Dr. Mick Peterson has yielded clues into how track maintenance and moisture content affects safety. Dr. Tim Parkin, studying the EID, has identified factors that may make a horse more vulnerable to fatal injury, including past injury, time between starts, drops in claiming price, and age.

For what Dr. Parkin’s work means in practice when it comes to a vulnerable horse population, read Dr. Jennifer Durenberger’s Thoroughbred Racing Commentary piece about reducing the fatality rate at Suffolk Downs in 2014:

Let’s look first at the catastrophic injury rate for the meet: 1.24 per thousand starts. This is down from 1.73 in 2013 — a nearly 30 percent reduction. While I maintain that this particular metric tells only a small part of a much bigger story about the job we do protecting the overall safety and welfare of our equine athletes, it’s still the easiest number for us as an industry to obtain and compare across jurisdictions — both major league and minor league. Thanks to the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database (EID), which captures data from an amazing 93 percent of all flat racing days, we know that the average catastrophic injury rate in 2013 was 1.9 per thousand starts. That includes all horses – young and old, graded stakes competitors and seasoned claimers, sprinters and routers, turf specialists and mudders. When we separate that by surface, we see a nationwide average of 1.63 catastrophic injuries per thousand turf starters and 2.08 per thousand dirt starters. At Suffolk Downs in 2014, the turf rate was 1.44 and the dirt rate was 1.20 – less than 60 percent of the national average.

Thanks to some of Dr. Tim Parkin’s comprehensive epidemiological analysis of five years of EID data, we know that there are certain risk factors associated with catastrophic injury. Nine have been identified with statistical significance, including older horses, horses making “numerous starts within the past 1-6 months,” and horses entered in claiming races for a tag less than $25,000. It’s no secret that the vast majority of horses competing at Suffolk Downs fit squarely within this profile. For years, Suffolk has welcomed equine athletes in the later stages of their careers and helped transition them once the race was over. Our catastrophic injury rate was achieved amongst a population of some of the highest-risk horses in the country — competing for some of the lowest purses in the country.

High-risk horses competing for small purses — that’ll be racing at Brockton.

And those horses will be training and racing on a bullring that’s five furlongs with a chute. Last month, at the Grayson-Jockey Club Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit, Dr. Peterson addressed an issue that should interest anyone considering running at Brockton — what are the musculoskeletal effects of turning? You can watch the archived video of his presentation — it’s less than 20 minutes long, and begins at approximately 1:12. The upshot — turning is stressful, and more so on dirt surfaces, due to their variability. He raises a provocative question — “Do traction limited horses [as those running on dirt may be] have a certain number of allowable turning strides?”

The causes of racing injuries are complex, and safety can never be absolute — but the conditions that horses will be asked to race under at Brockton, and the kind of horses who will be entered to race, are higher risk.

One last thing — Brockton, as a condition of the racing license approved by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission last fall, only has to make a good faith effort to earn NTRA Safety Alliance accreditation.

Horses first, says the Massachusetts racing office. For all involved, racing at Brockton will put that motto to the test.

7/19/16 Update: The Brockton request for Race Horse Development Fund money for purses is back on the agenda for the July 21 MGC meeting.

The Massachusetts Experiment

One year’s decline isn’t a trend, but the fatality rate reduction at Suffolk Downs reported by racing director Jennifer Durenberger is still impressive:

Let’s look first at the catastrophic injury rate for the meet: 1.24 per thousand starts. This is down from 1.73 in 2013 — a nearly 30 percent reduction …

Thanks to the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database (EID), which captures data from an amazing 93 percent of all flat racing days, we know that the average catastrophic injury rate in 2013 was 1.9 per thousand starts. That includes all horses — young and old, graded stakes competitors and seasoned claimers, sprinters and routers, turf specialists and mudders. When we separate that by surface, we see a nationwide average of 1.63 catastrophic injuries per thousand turf starters and 2.08 per thousand dirt starters. At Suffolk Downs in 2014, the turf rate was 1.44 and the dirt rate was 1.20 — less than 60 percent of the national average.

Among the losses incurred by Suffolk Downs’ demise, count the reform work done by state regulators in partnership with track management since 2012, work that included adopting uniform medication rules and a horse-first welfare policy, making racing safer for vulnerable (older, cheaper) horses.

The Synth Difference

Matt Hegarty reporting from the Racehorse Welfare and Safety Summit:

The latest analysis of the data also continued to show a statistically significant difference between the rate of catastrophic injuries on artificial surfaces when compared with dirt surfaces and turf surfaces. Over the past three years, horses running on synthetic surfaces have suffered catastrophic injuries at a rate of 1.3 per 1,000 starts, whereas horses running on turf had a 1.6 rate and dirt horses had a 2.0 rate, slightly higher than the overall rate of 1.9, according to researchers.

We can’t keep ignoring the facts: Synthetic surfaces are safer. Any serious discussion about or initiative for reducing fatalities must include synthetics.


Jay Hovdey on why it’s time to talk about the claiming game:

… there also remains the undeniable fact that claiming races, by their very nature, serve to weaken the inherent responsibilities of both ownership and animal husbandry. The demands of constant turnaround require short-term solutions in veterinary care. The claiming game also nurtures the ability to suppress any real emotional attachments to the horses involved. They are, after all, merely transients — poker chips, as one famous claiming owner called them — no more or less than means to an end.

What’s the future for claiming races?

That’s one of the questions I took away from reading the New York Task Force report, which determined that sharply increased purses “commoditized” lower level claiming horses earlier this year, and suggested reforming claiming rules so that claims may be voided if a horse is vanned off. “The voiding of a claim should not require the death of the horse,” the report’s authors write on page 60. Practical, humane — exactly the sort of rule change that’s necessary if claiming races are going to continue to be a significant part of the game. But while the imbalance in purses and claiming prices at Aqueduct may have led to the resulting claiming frenzy last winter, it didn’t actually commodify the horses, because they were already commodities. Most in racing don’t question the system — the claiming game has been a pretty elegant solution to keeping races competitive over the years — but it’s becoming harder to defend.

To the Dogs

John Pricci responds to the NHBPA’s opposition to a raceday drug ban:

How can so many of the game’s practitioners fail to see that what they accept as “unfortunate accidents that are part of the game” is unacceptable to an unknowing and unsophisticated populace?

Do so many horsemen wear closed-cup blinkers that they cannot see “taking a bad step” is nothing more or nothing less than animal cruelty in the public’s eye, a public that could shut the whole down thing down because for 15 minutes they were empowered to take action and feel good about themselves?

That’s what happened in Massachusetts to greyhound racing, an animal sport nationally in steep decline, partly due to dog welfare and safety issues.

Hollywood Beckons

Santa Anita meet’s closed on Sunday and its numbers don’t tell a happy story*. David Milch’s racetrack drama probably won’t either, but the “Luck” preview released by HBO on Monday generates a good kind of excitement:

As a setting for storytelling, you couldn’t ask for anything more,” said Milch.

The horses used in filming “Luck” were some of the first to test the restored dirt track at Santa Anita last December, the same surface on which 19 horses were fatally injured during the meet. With an additional fatality on the training track and six on the turf course, the total number of fatalities came to 26 (as estimated here). Santa Anita is funding a safety study: “We hope that data will be important to us and something that we can apply.” That is to be hoped! It was a real pleasure to watch Santa Anita for three years and rarely worry about seeing a horse go down. After this meet, I can’t say that — and I’m not alone.

How’s this for ugly? Fatality numbers were almost all that was up at Santa Anita. While attendance held steady, handle declined. The track announced a 9% decrease in average daily handle, but the raw CHRIMS data, available through CalRacing, showed a 20.7% decline in gross handle over the previous year, from $589 million (PDF) to $467 million (PDF). Adjusting for eight fewer days, and a decline of 9.7% in the number of races carded, the Blood-Horse found average daily handle was down 11.6%. Pull the Pocket has an interesting theory on why Blood-Horse, which originally reported the 9% decline straight, revisited the handle numbers so thoroughly and quickly.

As long as I’m linking bad news, here’s more: The national HBPA officially opposes the proposed RCI ban on raceday medications. Apparently, a five-year phase-out isn’t long enough. “Blah. Blah. Blah,” says Ray Paulick. Exactly.

*Not a happy story, unless you’re a horseman or owner, in which case, hooray! Total purses were up 5.1% for the Santa Anita meet.

You Say Safe, I Say Deadly

Bob Baffert on the verge of his ninth Santa Anita training title:

“Getting back to the dirt was a big plus, and I have a pretty strong barn now which we were able to build up again. I’ve got no complaints, and it’s been a very safe meet.”

For Baffert’s barn, perhaps, aside from Always a Princess’ career-ending injury in the Santa Margarita. But it’s hardly been a safe meet for the overall horse population; on-track injury and fatality rates at Santa Anita have returned to the ugly level that helped spur the installation of synthetics in California.

Troubling TRF Report

Joe Drape is out with a scathing story this morning in the New York Times, alleging that the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation has had difficulty meeting its obligations to satellite farms caring for retired racehorses over the past two years, leading to cases of neglect and starvation. How deep is the mess? There’s no indication in Drape’s story that the quality of care horses get through the TRF Secretariat Center or prison farms has been compromised — and I hope that’s not because we don’t have the full story yet.

11:15 AM Update: TRF replies to Drape’s report on Facebook: “The TRF disputes the allegations by Joe Drape about the OK farms. They are either untrue or mis-characterized …” Further comment to come this afternoon.

12:30 PM Update: In a teleconference scheduled for 2:00 PM, TRF president George Grayson and board chairman Tom Ludt will speak to the press.

Ray Paulick is out with piece, from his perspective as a board member, that refutes the allegations in the NYT article and provides important context re: the financial turmoil that’s afflicted the organization for several years.

3/19/11 Addendum: “TRF defends itself against NYT article.” See also: “Dr. Patty Hogan responds to Drape.” I’m hesitant to say much at this point, because it’s obvious that the information out is incomplete, but what does come through re: TRF is that there’s tension with the Mellon Foundation, and re: retired racehorses is that not enough is being done (which is something that’s been known for a while). Drape’s story, which was followed up today with a report that the New York Attorney General’s Charities Bureau will review the complaints against TRF, has had one beneficial effect for TRF. “We’ve gotten a lot of money donated today, and that’s a positive thing.”

3/20/11 Addendum: The NYT reports that the veterinarian conducting the evaluations of TRF farms has been fired. “There were serious questions about her objectivity.” (But firing her raises serious questions about retaliation.) On the Paulick Report, Dr. Hogan “clarifies” the story by alleging Dr. Stacey Huntington released her findings “to the media for the purpose of creating drama” (comment #106). Dr. Huntington replies (comment #127).

The Toll

Somewhat overshadowed by the Big ‘Cap controversy is that there were two fatalities at Santa Anita on Saturday, one on the new dirt, one on turf:

According to Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board, Saturday’s double fatality brought the thoroughbred death totals since the Dec. 26 start of the Santa Anita meeting to 16 — six in racing and six in training on the new dirt track and four on the grass course. Last year, for the entire meeting, and on the synthetic track that brought much anger and whining from horsemen and resulted in owner Frank Stronach replacing it with traditional dirt, there were a total of 17 deaths — six on the main track, five on the training track and six on the grass.

Live racing ends on April 17. With fewer total races carded this year over last, Santa Anita is on track for approximately 26 total fatalities during the meet.

3/9/11 Addendum: More context from Jeff Scott regarding the fatalities on the Santa Anita dirt: “The death of Redemsky brings the total to at least 12, a number that rivals the worst years on the old Santa Anita dirt before the first synthetic surface was installed in 2007.” Where’s the press on this reversion?

Gate Break Checks

Santa Anita stewards have tightened their policy on vet checks for gate breaks, following a January incident in which a horse pushed through its stall doors before the start and then didn’t run its best race after losing two teeth:

While stopping short of automatically scratching horses that break through the gate, we decided that the veterinarian will look at every horse that opens the gate in any way. This will not only provide safety for horses and riders but will also protect the wagering public by providing some opportunity to change wagers if necessary.

Via the February 5, 2011 stewards’ minutes.

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