Racetrack horse deaths down only slightly despite safety reforms

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Oct 01, 2009

National Report — No one is exactly sure why, but the number of horse deaths at the nation's racetracks declined very little in 2008, according to a recent unofficial count, despite ongoing industrywide efforts to raise health and safety standards.

Although 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, that incident was the trigger for numerous safety and medication reforms put in place over the past year.

Despite those 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 count conducted by the Associated Press using open records requests in the nation's 38 racing jurisdictions.

While they are unsure why there hasn't been a more dramatic reversal, veterinarians and racing experts say many factors contribute to deaths on the track and that no particular change or improvement by itself is likely to solve the problem in the near term.

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 any 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 the newer 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. "This actually confirms that there are additional hind-leg injuries on synthetic surfaces, which is what trainers have been telling us," says Rick Arthur, DVM, equine medical director for the CHRB.

UC-Davis experts are working to develop consistent test data to measure the effects of synthetic track surfaces on horses, says Arthur. Surface temperatures are much higher on those tracks than on dirt tracks.

"But to think that this is only a racetrack problem, and that we will fix it by fixing the racetracks is terribly naive," Arthur says.

Among safety reforms in the past year was the industrywide banning of front toe-grabs, which were believed to contribute to injuries. But rear toe grabs, meant to improve traction, are banned only in some locations. Experts now are taking a new look at rear toe grabs, and if it's found they do improve safety the bans could be lifted.

Meanwhile, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA) is proceeding with an accreditation program for racetracks, certifying those that meet new industry safety criteria. Churchill Downs was the first track to receive accreditation.