Cooperation Breakdown - By Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the July 10, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Eric Mitchell

By Eric MitchellOnly one conclusion can be drawn from the Equine Injury Database statistics recently released about racehorse fatalities at North American racetracks—the initiative is successfully collecting useful data from 73 racetracks.

That’s it.

No conclusion can be made about the safety of synthetic tracks versus dirt tracks.

No conclusion can be made about racing 2-year-olds.

No conclusion can be made about the weight being carried or the distances being run regarding their influences on racetrack fatalities.

The reason none of these numbers are meaningful—though they are interesting to read—is that the data set isn’t large enough yet to produce anything statistically meaningful. The key words are statistically meaningful.

“These calculations are considered estimates of prevalence because they represent a one-year sample of data and not a complete census,” said Dr. Tim Parkin, senior fellow in clinical research at the University of Glasgow, United Kingdom. “The statistics included here do not imply anything about the relative safety of a racing surface or a horse’s age or gender.”

The numbers presented from the EID June 28 on the opening day of the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit showed no statistically significant difference between the fatality rates on synthetic surfaces versus dirt. Interesting, but meaningless. We’ll wait for more data and better numbers.

But some people can’t wait.

On the day the EID presented its findings, the results of a study commissioned by the Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association’s Thoroughbred Action Committee were leaked online. This report’s statistics show that incidences where horses did not finish in their last races (in 2009 and 2008) and did not return to work or start through June 1, 2010, occurred more often on dirt tracks than on synthetic tracks. The statistics for the TOBA report were aggregated and compiled by Equibase, which is a partnership between the Thoroughbred Racing Associations and The Jockey Club.

Before anyone thinks about comparing the results of these two reports, it is important to understand they look at two entirely different populations of horses.

The EID statistics are based only on fatal injuries. Data were collected on fatalities occurring before a race, during a race, during training hours, and any “non-exercise” occurrence (such as a horse getting loose on the backside and falling).

The TOBA report based its numbers on horses that did not finish in a race. If a horse loses a shoe and is pulled up and then the horse’s owners decide to sell or retire the horse, that horse is included in the study. Eight Belles, who tragically broke down after finishing second in the 2008 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), is not included because she finished the race.

The two studies do have one thing in common. They don’t offer any meaningful conclusion. As already pointed out, the EID sample isn’t large enough. And the TOBA study? Well, Equibase president Hank Zeitlin put it this way in a statement: “This data was organized by certain criteria without interpretation...This data set was provided to TOBA for its internal use and was not professionally evaluated for statistical significance.”

What the TOBA study did do effectively is muddy the statistical waters on a controversial issue. For years industry organizations—take your pick: National Thoroughbred Racing Association, The Jockey Club, Breeders’ Cup Ltd., the TRA—have taken a lot of criticism for failing to work together on key issues affecting the long-term growth and health of Thoroughbred racing. But the EID is not a program anyone should be working to derail. Here is an effort driven by real industry cooperation and working toward meaningful results that can be used for significant change.

Should we welcome independent studies? Absolutely. But let’s conduct transparent, meaningful research and share the results in an open forum where the results can be dissected and debated, instead of an ambush Internet distribution of questionable statistics bent in support of one side of an issue.

Draw the same conclusion from the TOBA study that you should the EID study. Nothing. But embrace racehorse safety as an extremely important issue and demand to get the information we need from thorough and meaningful study.

Eric Mitchell, Editorial Director and Editor-in-Chief, Blood-Horse Publications


Leave a Comment:


Sure, surfaces play a role in breakdowns. But why not examine the probably more causal impact of the conformation of the foot? Thoroughbreds these days have horrific feet: flat and thin. The construct of the individuals is not even considered, and it plays a huge role in which individuals can stand up to the rigors of racing and which ones are not so well equipped, and eventually fail.

They are barking up the wrong tree, in my humble estimation.

07 Jul 2010 1:29 PM

What upset me about the TOBA study was that it attempted to make these sweeping conclusions using very basic statistics.  The EID study, as I understand it, tries to control for multiple factors, while the TOBA study controlled for nothing.  For example, TOBA said that horses running on synthetic were less likely to have DNFs than horses running on the dirt.  However, the tracks which have installed synthetic also have more stakes races and not as many lower level claiming races, something which is also likely to reduce their level of fatalities as Stakes races have lower numbers of DNFs than claiming races.  TOBA did not account for multiple factors in their analysis and therefore should not conclude that dirt tracks CAUSED higher levels of fatalities, only that there is a CORRELATION.  Unfortunately this distinction was not made in the reporting of TOBA's conclusions.    

07 Jul 2010 1:54 PM

Mr. Mitchell:

I've researched, as best I'm able, the EID findings, but remain somewhat confused. You state that data were collected on fatalities occurring before a race, during a race, during training hours, and any "non-exercise" occurrence". So far, though, I can only locate the numbers and stats related to fatalities occurring "during a race". Why haven't the other figures been made available? Would truly appreciate hearing a reply.

07 Jul 2010 3:21 PM

Seems to me that the Santa Anita winter meet stats, only 2 breakdowns during racing in 83 racing days indicate progress is being made. Even better, only 4 breakdowns occurred during training, which is 7 days a week, and comprises many more horses.

07 Jul 2010 3:40 PM

After one full year of data compilation on injuries, countless numbers of surveys among trainers & owners, millions of dollars invested in the implementation of the synth tracks, and 4-5 years of use, no one can still confirm that the new surfaces are actually safer.

08 Jul 2010 11:33 AM

Instead of our focusing on the variables-surface, age, weight, etc.- we should be discussing what is so obvious in this data; the absurdly high incidence of severe injury and death.

08 Jul 2010 12:38 PM
Mark A.

I don't care what they say. All I know is that synthetics prevent horses from being the great athletes they are. Horses will always die on a racetrack no matter what surface. Let's not kill the sport by trying to find a magic carpet they can run on. Get ride of the fake tracks.

08 Jul 2010 2:14 PM

First of all, the JC should release its raw data with pride, enough with nameless Juridiction A and B. If the racing industry is so worried or ashamed about its business that the JC stats have to be filtered, kept vague, confidential and if owners, trainers and their vets are so worried about liability that they refuse to disclose the physical condition of horses and what they do to them before a race, even though secrecy contributes to the endangerment of horses and jockeys, it is time for serious change.

No injury and fatality stats will be worth much until drugs and pre-existing injuries are missing.

Fatality stats won't be meaningful until they include all dead horses on and off-track following training or racing injuries. Without that, fatality figs have to favor synthetic tracks which tend to cause more soft-tissue injuries, making it easier (on people) to keep horses alive and ship them out.

08 Jul 2010 4:32 PM

Sceptre, you asked a good question regarding the information released during the Welfare and Safety Summit. The Equine Injury Database initiative is collecting data on fatalities related to racing, during training, and during "non-exercise" occurrences.

The information released during the Summit, however, was only fatalities related to racing. The summary of the findings states: "Included in the data are horses that suffered a fatal injury during a race and immediately after a race, and those that succumbed to a race-related injury subsequent to race day."

These are only race-related fatalities and do not include any fatalities during training or during "non-exercise" occurrences. The reason for this, according to Dr. Mary Scollay, is that the tracks are contractually obligated to provide data on race-related fatalities but are not obligated to provide fatality numbers during training hours and "non-exercise" occurrences. Part of the reason this segment is voluntary is because not all tracks are equipped to collect this data with regularity. One of the issues with collection, according to Scollay, is with tracks that have a high percentage of horses shipping in and out.

Since some tracks are providing the training and "non-exercise" data and some are not, then it makes these numbers even more unreliable to analyze, at least at this point. It seems to me that with some coordination between the tracks, a good system for tracking all the fatalities in these two categories could be established. Then we need all the tracks to also commit to providing these numbers. The EID is a good first effort. We shouldn't undermine it by providing incomplete statistics.

08 Jul 2010 8:18 PM

Mr. Mitchell,

Appreciate your detailed reply to my query. I'm gld some clarity was brought to your readers here, but unfortunately this won't be the case relative to your very well written "hard copy" piece in the magazine. Most will be left with the impression that the overall racetrack equine death rate is far lower than what is reality. I also have my doubts about racing's degree of motivation to obtain (and publish) these "truths". In a saner world, appropriate data collection would be the province of an unbiased, outside the industry agency. Unless Racing does a better job of this-with far more transparence and speed- it shouldn't be too difficult to find a few members of Congress sympathetic to the horses' plight who could then be made aware of this situation and inadequate process.  

08 Jul 2010 9:52 PM

Statistics are only as good as the data from which they are drawn. If you don't ask the right questions then your data and thus your conclusions are crap. The old garbadge in = garbadge out.

While I agree with the purpose of this study it does not go far enough in answering what is going on with TB track injuries and how it relates to the track surface. A huge percentage of the track related injuries, not lethal, are not analized. If there is a huge increase in crippling & career ending injuries because of the synthetic tracks then they are not really a good solution.

I read this article  This is an interview with Bruce Headley, long time owner & trainer who has some shocking (to me) things to say about the tremendous increase in injuries on the synthetic tracks. These injuries have devastated his stable of horses and may be a significant reason the number of horses in the field has decreased and sport's struggle to survive worsens. By the time they get around to studying these issues the sport may have been strangled to death.

Here are just a couple quotes to illustrate my point: "In the time that the synthetics have been in, I usually would have had 3 or 4 tibias. I have 26....Then because the horses stick on these tracks rather than slide you have all kinds of quarter cracks. The feet blow apart. You can come to my barn and I bet I've got a patch on 10-15 horses. We used to have maybe one a year. They always talk about deaths but I've had multiple, multiple, multiple injuries."

I will add that these injuries can make a horse too unsound for a second career, not as a sport horse or a pleasure horse. What's the future for those horses?

09 Jul 2010 7:32 AM
Let It Ride Mike

Bruce Headley is one of the best horsemen in the history of CA. But his hallmark has always been a string of bullet fast four and five furlong workouts. Most trainers I have talked to said they learned along the way that training on synthetic surfaces has much more to do with how the horse did it than the time, that if you are just trying to have them work fast it doesn't necessarily mean they got alot out of it. Zenyatta has trained for several years on synthetic tracks and she is bigger than just about any runner the west coast has seen since the surface switch has happened. She is sound and thriving, as is Rail Trip, Awesome Gem etc. All racing more years at the top-level than we seem to see from our dirt track trained stars.

09 Jul 2010 11:14 AM

Let It Ride Mike, I appreciate your comment to my concern about synthetic tracks. Are you saying that fast works do not make an adequate physical preparation for the race and that injury results? I wondered how Zenyatta did so well in light of Beard's comments.

What about his comment that the feet cannot slide on the synthetic surface which causes frequent quarter cracks? Why do some horses do well on synthetics and some don't? Is it the training or the type of movement used by the horse?

I remember when they announced the study on equine deaths and that there would be subsequent studies examining other issues, like injuries. I don't think they should wait until this study is finished to start on an injury study. That's just too many years. I do understand needing enough years of data for it to be statistically significant and that's why they need to start now.

09 Jul 2010 9:50 PM

Thanks for this blog, I've been anxious and awaiting the results of any of these studies.  I'm pretty disappointed though.  From what I'm reading, there are too many hands in the pot.  This issue has affected California racing more, the number of east coast horses shipping to California for the major races have dropped significantly and it's quite obvious the reasons are that they don't want to run on these "fake" surface.

Here's some thoughts and questions :

1.  In your response to Sceptre, you mentioned that Dr. Scollay said that not all tracks are equipped to collect this data with regularity.  I'm not sure what tracks would need to "collect" the data, shouldn't it be just a mandate that all trainers/owners report any injuries to "someone" either via email or a phone call although an email is better so there's documentation or is that simplifying it too much ?

2.  What "data" is being collected ?  It seems that there's too many variables being taken into consideration, can we focus on just getting the data for injuries / fatalities for now and then go from there ?  It seems that we're spending way too much time determining what data needs to be collected for the data to have a meaning.  They seem to be making it too complicated than needed.  You can't cover everything when you're data gathering.  You'll have to gather the main data then do you analysis, identify and isolate the data that needed more information before it can be used and then go on from there.  I don't understand why the data they have now is "inconclusive", we have to start somewhere, if they already have the data, they need to start using it.  If not, the sport will die before they can even finish their first analysis.

3.  Who are the groups that are doing the studies ?  Why not create ONE group with a rep from each of the groups and come up with the rules that they will go by in collecting the data.  Why is TOBA doing their own study outside of EID ?  This is not about who can interpret or collect the data, it's about the safety of the horses, it should be agreed by all parties (specially the owners and trainers and jockeys) on what data to collect and how to collect it, put someone in each track that will collect that data.  Is it really that complicated ?

4.  If any one industry org is trying to deny the public this data and settle this issue then they should be reprimanded.  If the synthetics proves to be ineffective in preventing injuries/fatalities, then the tracks should go back to natural dirt.  If it is effective, then the other tracks needs to switch to it.  Yes, history will be changed forever by switching to synthetics but if it's going to save the future of the horses then I believe it should be done.

09 Jul 2010 10:33 PM

First, my apologies for my spelling. My spell check has technical difficulties and though I proof read, I miss many of my mistakes until I see them on line.

Perhaps someone who is knowledge able could explain the term "statistical significance." My courses in statistics & research methodology were LONG ago. I understand that the sample has to be large enough, or in this case cover enough years to be s.s. and the conclusions valid, but I sure can't explain it.

The Jockey Club MAY be reluctant to release their raw data for other reasons than those mentioned above. I'm not saying the theories involving them being self serving are incorrect, just that there may be other or additional factors.

If they release their raw data it may be misinterpreted by people who don't know how to statistically evaluate data with valid conclusions. It could also be twisted to "prove" someone's individual agenda. Then the media can run with it and before you know it there is widespread misinformation and bad science is accepted as truth.

This may sound unlikely but it can & does happen. It was rampant during the 1980's when the public was hungry for information about AIDS and HIV I & II. I worked in public health information back then and most of my time was spent educating people on the facts after they had read incorrect information in magazines and newspapers. Any expert and any scientific report or research study was reported as the truth. No one bothered to see if the expert really knew what they were talking about or if the research had passed scientic muster, i.e. was it good science. If it's not good science it's crap.

The variables like weight, age, etc. have to be collected to see if they could have been a cause or a factor in causing the death. If these variables were eliminated (probably the wrong term) then you can make an assumption the track surface was to blame. Example of matched or eliminating variables: all 3 year olds carrying the same weight. You can then rule out the age and weight being a causal factor in the death. This is just a simple example, I'm sure what they are doing is quite complex.

Is the reason the TOBA is doing the injury study because they wanted results sooner than the EID, which was not studying injuries? I hope they can get all the tracks submitting the same information ASAP. The injury information is just as important IMO as that on fatalities. The fatalities are horrible and bad PR but the injuries must be costing the owners a fortune.

11 Jul 2010 12:06 AM

In my previous post I should have said HV I&II, not HIV I&II. It's the herpes simplex virus I was referring to. Duh!

11 Jul 2010 1:49 AM

Mr Mitchell,

You may not be able to draw any meaningful conclusions from the statistics, but I learned that equine mortality insurance is a bad investment.

This is an excerpt from the report on the Welfare & Safety Summit ->

.....The analysis of racing surfaces didn’t show a large enough swing in the number of injuries, though officials said it could be because data is limited. The number of catastrophic injuries per 1,000 starts was 2.04; by surface the figures were 1.78 for turf, 1.78 for synthetic, and 2.14 for dirt, which had a much higher number of starts.......

If this is the case, then why are equine mortality rates for racing stock in the neighborhood of 6-7%??   Let's assume the average horse has 10 starts per year,  That puts the percentage of a horse having a catastrophic breakdown during competition at about 2%.  Factor in  illness or accident and the percentage probably nears 3%.  

Now I realize the insurance agencies have overhead expenses to account for, but  with this data now available, these rates seem way too high. Insurance agencies will continue to charge what they can get until thoroughbred owners speak up. With this data now available it's time to speak up and take the insurance agencies to task.

12 Jul 2010 7:52 PM

Seems like the insurance companies and the lawyers are the only folks getting rich these days.

15 Jul 2010 12:29 AM
A. Evers

No one has brought up the fact that all this stuff smells incredibly toxic. The smells have toned down a bit over the years but at first it was atrocious. There is no study on the health risk to the horse and jockeys breathing this stuff. As a photographer I'm down on the track setting up cameras under the rail, this stuff gets on your skin, and for me it makes my skin incredibly irritated, i cant imagine what it does to horses lungs.

23 Aug 2010 12:00 PM

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