The NTRA Should Be Certifying Horses, Not Tracks

By Bill Pressey Thoroedge Equine Performance

Magnificent filly Eight Belles broke down during the gallop-out after the 2008 Kentucky Derby and this was the nationally televised impetus to establish the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance.

Did anyone blame Churchill Downs or the track surface for the incident?  Of course not, so why are we now wasting time ‘certifying’ tracks in an effort to avoid another such catastrophe?

According to the published info at DRF we know that:

-Eight Belles worked and raced less than any other entry in the field at just 52 furlongs total for the first 5 months of 2008. Next lowest was Big Brown at 56 furlongs, and both careers ended soon after their heroic Derby efforts.

I just don’t buy the fact that the Eight Belles tragedy was ‘just racing’, a bad step, or a fluke accident. I could go along with that if the injury happened to one ankle during some jostling the first quarter of the race. But to break both ankles after the longest and toughest race of her young life – there is something else at work here. Certainly it’s not the fault of the track at Churchill, either.

A few years back we seemed to be on the right track, with calls to develop a standardized pre-race protocol, involving more than a simple vet check:

In March 2008 at the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit in Lexington, the following recommendations were passed on by those in attendance:

Recommendation 2: Catastrophic Injuries

  • Promotion of standardized pre-race exam protocol
    1. Develop a standardized protocol and procedures for pre-race examinations

Here was my proposal:

Many years ago you would have been reading about the spate of deaths in equine endurance racing, where some competitions last 100 miles. In an effort to curb these deaths, the powers that be in that discipline instituted the Cardiovascular Response Index based on heart rate recovery after exercise. Now no horses drop dead in that sport, as they are disqualified if they fail the CRI.

Why can’t we do the same for thoroughbreds?

A recommended “Pre-Race Fitness Test for Kentucky Derby length of 1.25miles/10 furlongs”

-Test to encompass 12s/furlong pace at 60-70% of race distance for these elite horses

-1.25 mile race requires 6 furlongs breeze in 1min12sec

-Taken and passed, no less than 3 days before race, no more than 10 – ideal would be 7 days out.

-Recovery heart rate must fall to 120bpm within 2 minutes, and 70bpm within 10 minutes of peak work speed. (2min period reflective of horse being cooled down properly, 10min period reflects fitness level/conditioning of horse for the effort.)

In my opinion we must strive to prove that a horse is conditioned appropriately for a 6 furlong effort the week before being asked to race 10 furlongs. Horses that have undiagnosed problems with bone remodeling, tendon or ligament stability, or systemic illness or infection will not pass such a test.

Why these numbers? I consulted the following study:

David W. Freeman, Equine Specialist, Don R. Topliff, Associate Professor of Animal Science, Michael A. Collier, Professor of Surgery, Veterinary Medicine. Monitoring Fitness of Horses by Heart Rate. Oklahoma State University, ANSI-9118

Relevant material from the report:

  • Recovery heart rate below 120 beats per minute at 2 minutes post exercise and below 70 beats per minute at 10 minutes post exercise suggest the horse is adequately conditioned to the level and intensity of exercise.

  • Careful monitoring of heart rate may assist in early detection of injury much sooner than is otherwise possible.

  • Elevated heart rates may also be a sign of chronic fatigue, or ‘overtraining’ as it is commonly termed in the industry. The training program may have to be completely stopped and the horse rested for 30 to 60 days if conditioning fatigue persists.

There is a ton of similar scientific research findings out there, but no link to help trainers take advantage of this information in creating faster AND sounder racehorses.

For instance a landmark study from the famed New Bolton Center discovered the following that is in direct opposition to many training practices today:

D. M. Nunamaker, VMD. On Bucked Shins. Proceedings of the 48th AAEP Annual Convention. Orlando, FL. December 4-8, 2002.

Relevant material from the report:

  • Traditional training methods of long, slow gallops for yearlings that result in bucked shins are a major cause of saucer and stress fractures later in life, injuries that can contribute to catastrophic breakdowns when racing.

Here we are in 2011 and the only progress made has been with regards to certifying track surfaces, starting gates, veterinary personnel, etc. – NONE of which was to blame for the demise of Eight Belles in the first place.

Hell, we rely on objective scientific info during breeding, mating, rehabbing, and other veterinary work – but  ZERO when it comes to answering the question: Is this horse ready to race on Sunday in front of a worldwide audience at a mile and a quarter without risk of breakdown?

The death of Eight Belles, like that of Barbaro before her, brought significant attention to our sport -- for all the wrong reasons.  Unfortunately, instead of focusing on how we can ensure that our horses are as fit and sound as they can possibly be using the objective science that is already out there, we've focused our energy on the tracks themselves.

But, hey, at least CD, PIM, and BEL are certified, right?


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