New safety rules are barely saving lives
A greater emphasis on safety was already under way at some tracks before the breakdown of the filly Eight Belles before a live television audience in the 2008 Kentucky Derby, but that incident was the trigger for numerous and ongoing safety and medication reforms in the months since.
Despite the reforms, the number of horse deaths on racetracks dropped only 3 percent in 2008, to 1,217 compared to 1,247 in 2007, based on a national count conducted by the Associated Press using open records requests in the 38 racing jurisdictions nationwide.
While they are unsure why the overall death total remains about the same, racing experts say many factors contribute to deaths on the track and that no particular change or improvement is likely to solve the problem, at least not in the short term.
"We've learned that injuries are very complex in their causes, and there are a number of things that need to be critically evaluated," said Mary Scollay, DVM, Kentucky's equine medical director in a comment for the AP report.
Of 26 states that furnished statistics, 12 reported more deaths in 2008 than the year before, while 13 reported fewer. Virginia had eight in both years. California, which holds the most races, had more than twice as many racetrack deaths as any other state, with 251 in 2008 compared to 240 in 2007
Among possible contributing factors that racing experts, including several veterinarians, are studying is track surfaces -- whether newer synthetic surfaces provide better footing for horses than traditional dirt tracks.
A report presented to the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) at the end of August showed that horses running on synthetic tracks in that state suffered more hind-leg injuries, instead of the front-leg injuries that typically result in more deaths, including that of Eight Belles. The report showed 19 of 111 horses that died on California synthetic tracks in 2008 suffered hind-leg injuries, while only one out of 65 horses that succumbed on dirt tracks suffered a hind-leg injury.
Catastrophic front-leg breakdowns in Thoroughbreds, numbering 135 in California alone last year, remain far more prominent than hind-leg breakdowns, according to the CHRB/University of California-Davis study.