Bobby Zen

The equine fatality rate in North America has shrunk significantly over the last 15 years, from 1.98 per 1,000 starts in 2009 to 1.32 last year. Still according to officials, that number remains higher than other racing jurisdictions around the globe such as Australia, Great Britain, Hong Kong, Japan, and New Zealand.

If there was a unifying theme running through Tuesday’s Jockey Club Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit, however, it was that the industry has all the tools necessary to uniformly reduce fatality rates to meet and beat international levels.

Indeed, several tracks in the U.S. are already there–including Santa Anita, which concluded its winter-spring season with a 99.97% safety record, marking it out among the safest major North American tracks. This, just five years on from a welfare crisis that brought the state’s racing industry to its knees.

“My career, my daily life, I thought it might be twilighting, that there might be a change in California,” said Southern California-based trainer Tim Yakteen, when discussing events from five years ago. “But the changes that took place are something I’m very proud of–the success that we’ve achieved.”

Using these experiences, Yakteen issued an industry-wide plea: “If we don’t embrace change, we’re going to stay stagnant,” he said.

Providing a broad framework for the day, McKinsey and Company’s Dan Singer and Ben Vonwiller outlined seven key “opportunities” to make a wholesale leap forward.

1: Post-entry screening

McKinsey’s analysis breaks down post-screening protocols three ways.

AAA: About 10% to 15% of the nation’s tracks have what they’ve defined as a full suite of post-entry screening protocols.

This includes a panel report gathering together information like PPs, work history, vets’ list history and other high-risk factors; a panel meeting to identify which horses entered to race are at highest risk of injury; and physical examinations by regulatory veterinarians.

These so-called “AAA” tracks have a 30% to 40% lower fatality rate than tracks with lesser post-screening protocols.

AA: These are the tracks where the regulatory vets might pull only a few risk factors when assessing horses, and might not have access to the full suite of health and performance histories necessary to make a comprehensive pre-race assessment.

A: There are the tracks where the regulatory vets might look only at PPs when assessing risk of injury pre-race, and where post-entry examinations might not take place at all. These account for between 55% to 70% of all tracks, according to McKinsey.

Why are these panel reports so important?

Horses with lay-up periods of between 31-60 days are 29% more likely to suffer a fatal injury. Horses previously on the vets’ list are at a 34% higher risk of fatal injury. Horses four and older making their first start are 48% more likely to suffer a fatal injury than an average horse.

Will Farmer, Churchill Downs equine medical director, moderated a wide-ranging panel discussion on the significance of these post-screening protocols, with a particular focus on life since the advent of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA).

Sarah Hinchliffe, a regulatory veterinarian with the New York Racing Association (NYRA), identified the ability for regulators to see a trainer’s equine medical records, along with the extra regulatory eyes on the track of a morning, as key areas of improvement.

“Watching morning training has been a huge help to us in identifying horses that are of concern and preventing those injuries during training–particularly turning horses back that aren’t sound,” said Hinchliffe, adding how a decrease in equine injuries has correlated to a decrease in human injuries as well.

Farmer agreed with Hinchliffe’s assessment on medical records, saying that it creates a “timeline” for veterinarians and trainers to make better medical decisions.

Lyndsay Hagemeyer, an Ohio regulatory veterinarian, said trainers in the state were apprehensive about what the extra veterinary scrutiny would entail–a fear that proved largely unfounded, she added.

“With this racing season, it’s been a welcome change. They’re used to us being in the barns now,” Hagemeyer said.


Chip Johnson, a private veterinarian in Central Kentucky, was more ambivalent in his assessment. HISA, he said, “has made horses safer.”

At the same time, he identified some of the key teething problems from a private practitioner’s perspective, including the additional paperwork and costs of hiring additional staff to manage that workload.

“I don’t think people understand or appreciate the volume [or paperwork] that a racetrack practitioner goes through every day,” Johnson said.

2: Wearable technologies

Wearable biometric sensors have sprung to prominence over the last few years due to their promise of identifying those small percentage of at-risk horses who might appear sound to the human eye, but which might display subtle lameness at various gaits, including racing pace.

Indeed, McKinsey reports that 90% or more of international veterinarians when asked said that wearable gait analysis technologies are a “significant” tool to reducing fatalities.

Sara Langsam, a veterinary partner at Teigland, Franklin and Brokken, discussed an American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) project seeking to identify the wearable biometric sensors most adept at identifying horses at elevated risk of suffering musculoskeletal injuries that are easy to use and affordable.

Toward the end of last year, the AAEP issued a request for proposal on the project. Twelve applicants replied, and the AAEP has subsequently whittled that number down to six.

As of the beginning of next year, these six technologies will each be trialed on teams of 100 2-year-olds trained across the U.S. The project will carry on throughout the year.

Highlighting one of the key concerns raised, Langsam said that none of the data collected will be shared with anyone other than the AAEP subcommittee, put together to oversee the project. “This is purely an experiment,” she said.

“What do we need from the industry?” Langsam asked, rhetorically. Compliance is the answer.

“These horses are just starting off at training centers–obviously, they’re not allowed onto racetracks until March. Some of these may be sold. Some of them signed up for the study may change hands. So, if you all of a sudden now have a horse in your barn that you didn’t sign up for, we ask that you keep the sensor on them and keep them in the study,” she said. “We would like to have a year’s worth of information.”

The end goal, she said, is for the AAEP to recommend to HISA one or two sensors for nationwide implementation.

“Obviously at AAEP, we are an advisory group. We don’t have any teeth,” said Langsam. “But HISA will take this on, and they’ve promised to listen to our recommendation and, potentially, go forward with full implementation on all 55,000 racehorses in the United States.”

A previous panel on equine sudden death discussed the role biometric sensors–like Arineo’s electrocardiogram (ECG) monitor–might play in better understanding the currently poorly understood reasons behind these events.

Another related topic raised in several of the panel discussions was that of a new wave of sophisticated imaging modalities, like PET, CT and MRI.

During the discussion on post-entry screening protocols, Chip Johnson said that one of the challenges with diagnostic technologies is to “get these machines in front of the horses that need it.” These wearable biometric sensors offer a potential avenue for streamlining that process.

3: Race conditions/claiming races

According to McKinsey, there’s a 25% higher risk of injury associated with claiming races, and a 17% higher risk of fatal injury associated with horses running at up to six furlongs.

Tim Parkin, head of the veterinary school at the University of Bristol, expanded upon these details in his presentation at the beginning of the morning.

Parkin pointed out how the first four starts a claimed horse makes with a new trainer is vitally important.

Using as a baseline a horse that never switches trainer, Parkin said that a horse having its first start for a new trainer has a 25% greater risk of injury, and a horse within the 2-4 start range for a new trainer has a 20% elevated risk of injury.

Sarah Andrew

“But then what the model is telling us is once the horse gets to within five-plus races with the new trainer, actually they’re not at any statistical greater risk than they were if they hadn’t changed trainer,” said Parkin.

Parkin also pointed out how the type of void claim rule is important, saying that the “most stringent void claim rules at a track reduce the risk by the most degree.”

Nor is this just an academic assessment. Ohio regulatory veterinarian Lyndsay Hagemeyer described HISA’s voided claim rule as having a “really significant” change for the better in the state.

4: Improved surface maintenance

McKinsey’s data breaks dirt surfaces into four climate groups. The safest dirt tracks are in hot dry climates (with a 1.31 fatality rate per 1,000 starts), and the dirt surfaces with the worst equine fatality rates are in climates with hot summers and cold, freezing winters (1.53 fatalities per 1,000 starts).

Their data also points out how improved track maintenance protocols come with lower equine fatality rates.

Mick Peterson, executive director of the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory and professor of Biosystems & Agricultural Engineering at the University of Kentucky, expanded upon these details in an information and data-rich presentation (that is hard to summarise).

Peterson explained that key to honing track maintenance best practices–built around the notion of racetrack consistency–is understanding how the “primary load” comes from the horse’s muscle-generated force.

“The primary load and damage is from muscle-generated force–it’s not the surface,” he said. “Muscle-generated force is much larger. And so, what’s happening is, you’ve got this muscle-generated force but then it’s suddenly different. The horse has already adapted to the muscle-generated force.”

With that in mind, the ultimate goal under HISA, Peterson said, “is when you ship from one track to another, and you start out the race meet, it’s going to look like wherever you came from. It’s going to have the smallest variation possible.”

HISA and the nation’s superintendents have made progress in recent years in several important areas, said Peterson, including in grade measurement and maintenance, in racetrack design, and standardized current harrow design.

But to close the variability gap from track to track, the industry must invest in better tools for better measurement, more advanced water truck designs, and real-time measurement of track moisture content, he added.

“Then I want to mention next generation surfaces,” Peterson added. “Right now, we’re just looking for consistency. I think there’s a really strong argument for consistency. But at some point, we’ve got to step back and ask: What is the optimum surface for the horse?”

This question leads onto the next of the identified “opportunities” for improvement…

5: All-weather surfaces

While there have been huge strides forward in the maintenance of dirt tracks, all-weather surfaces remain safer on average. According to the McKinsey analysis, all five synthetic surfaces in North America are among the 15 safest tracks overall.

The researchers also sought to dispel some common myths associated with synthetic surfaces, including the following:

“Average field sizes by race on all-weather were not smaller than those on dirt, when compared at North American racetracks who had operated both dirt and all-weather tracks between 2009 and 2022.”
“Average win/place/show handle was not significantly different per race on all-weather surfaces vs. dirt surfaces, when compared at racetracks that had operated both; at one track that hosted Breeders’ Cups on both all-weather and dirt surfaces.”
“Average career length in years and number of races were not significantly different between horses who ran more on synthetic vs. those who ran more on dirt.”

Sarah Andrew

Which brings the topic back to Mick Peterson’s remark about next generation surfaces.

“These next generation surfaces need to be able to deal with water. Hydrophobic like the synthetic surfaces, or [better] control the moisture. Biomechanically, they’ll probably be more like the turf than anything else, because I’ve rarely heard anyone say, ‘my horse doesn’t like the turf,’” said Peterson. “The big data question about all this is learn about the biomechanics.”

6 & 7: Trainers and breeders

Just 50 trainers with what appears over 1,000 starts between 2018 and 2022–0.7% of the total–account for 13% of North American fatalities, according to McKinsey. These 50 trainers also account for 5.7% of all starts in North America. They did not name these trainers individually.

McKinsey also identified how 50 breeders with what appears over 500 starts between 2018 and 2022–0.1% of the total active breeders–account for 8.4% of the total North American fatalities. They also account for 4.2% of all starts. Again, they did not name the breeders individually.

The panellists briefly broached the how and the why of this dynamic. As to resolving these disparities, they mentioned the sharing of best practices among trainers, and the need for greater accountability, as in the publishing of fatality data like in California and New York.

Talking of California, trainer Tim Yakteen said the culture of horse care has changed markedly in the state since the advent of stricter rules, beginning five years ago. A key reason for this?

“Association vets have made the biggest change in my eyes, especially the way we do it in California,” he said. “We apply for our workouts in advance. It gives the association vets an opportunity to look at our horses prior to workouts. Association vets are very visible on the racetracks, positioned in different areas. They’re continuously watching our horses train. They’re seeing the trends in our horses. And again, we can see the results.”

The post Welfare and Safety Summit: Tools Available to Close Safety Gaps appeared first on TDN | Thoroughbred Daily News | Horse Racing News, Results and Video | Thoroughbred Breeding and Auctions.

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