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

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