An Eye on the Summit - by Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the October 27, 2012 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Eric Mitchell - @BH_EMitchell on Twitter

By Eric Mitchell Recently completed at Keeneland is what has become one of Thoroughbred racing’s most important annual events—the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit.

The first summit held in 2006 seeded many ideas that have since matured into meaningful programs and policies. One of the most important results has been the Equine Injury Database.

Now armed with meaningful statistics on fatalities, racetracks can further enhance pre-race veterinary inspections by identifying “horses of interest.” The 40,286 records collected from 89 racetracks running flat races plus those from the National Steeplechase Association from 2008 through 2010 have revealed a statistical connection between catastrophic lower limb fractures and seven risk factors, according to Dr. Tim Parkin of the University of Glasgow in Scotland. These risk factors are age, whether the runner is an intact male, ratio of claiming price to purse, size of drop in claiming price (particularly a double drop in claiming price) since the last race, multiple races within two weeks, number of starts within the previous 15-30 days, and being within three races of a break of 180 days or more.

These risk factors serve a double purpose. Not only do they create a profile of the at-risk horses to which vets need to give extra attention, but these factors should also help educate trainers and owners.

After all, it can be a sign that pre-race inspections are effective if vets are not scratching many horses out of a race, according to Dr. Mary Scollay, equine medical director for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. It means trainers recognize a horse isn’t fit to run so it doesn’t get entered, or the trainer recognized a problem after the horse had been entered and initiated the scratch.

Clearly, some horses are still getting slipped past the examiners. How do we know it’s because horses aren’t fit to race and not an unfortunate accident or misstep? Because the necropsies conducted after fatalities are still finding a number of joint lesions, indicating a pre-existing injury.

Even though the number of fatalities has not increased overall since the EID began in 2008, we cannot accept 1.9 fatalities per 1,000 starts as the norm. The industry simply has to do better.

I got a stark reminder of the importance of reducing injuries and fatalities recently during a dinner with friends in downtown Baltimore.

The conversation turned to horse racing, and one couple told about their first exposure to a live Thoroughbred race—the Pimlico infield on Preakness Stakes (gr. I) day before any attempts were made to limit alcohol consumption. Despite the infield craziness, they mentioned how impressed they were to stand near the rail early in the day and watch the racehorses up-close. Even among novices, the beauty and athleticism of a Thoroughbred are powerful.

Then they dropped the bombshell.

“You know, we haven’t been to the races a lot, but every time we’ve gone a horse got injured and had to be put down,” said the husband.

“I can’t bear to watch them put up that big screen,” said the wife.

The other couple at the table had been to the races only a few times as well and on at least two visits also watched horses break down.

Even among longtime fans of the sport, I hear over and over that they have stopped attending live racing out of fear of seeing a horse injured.

No one has to hear too many stories like these to understand why Thoroughbred racing is struggling to gain fans.
The racing industry has a lot of challenges—purses, attracting new owners, handle, takeout, competition from Internet gaming...the list goes on. But it will all be meaningless if we don’t put the health and safety of the racehorse first.

Toward this end, the Welfare and Safety Summit is essential; it shares valuable research publicly, it educates, and it pushes us all with steady determination toward real and necessary reform.

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