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.


Leave a Comment:


Yes, Mr. Mitchell, here's where the focus should be-on the safety and welfare of the horse. The goal, however, should be this in itself, and not as a means for attracting more fans/revitalizing an industry.

23 Oct 2012 11:12 AM
anita b

Last week at Belmont, a horse named "A ROD" ran---well, he came out last and didn't improve. I think its time that owner/trainer find another career for A ROD. Maybe he is soured out on racing, maybe a bad day but that was not good for anyone watching the horse.

23 Oct 2012 12:45 PM

Break downs are primarily caused by trainer negligence.

Every fatal breakdown should trigger a steward's investigation for negligence and immediate probation with suspension if negligence is found. would stop 75% of this stuff.

Scientific pre-race inspection for televised races.

Minimum training standards for entry.  ---and ur left with the 10% of fatal breakdowns that r bad luck.

23 Oct 2012 1:23 PM
Sid Gustafson DVM

It seems the presenters and industry continue to avoid focusing on the appropriate care of the stabled racehorse, which is necessary to race without drugs, as those trainers and breeders in Europe and Asia have demonstrated. Medication has engendered poor husbandry practices by facilitating substandard horsemanship, such as locking horses down 23 hours or so each day. The practice of stabling horses in an unenriched fashion contributes heavily to diminished pulmonary resilience and subsequent vulnerability to EIPH. Appropriate husbandry throughout a thoroughbreds development and training is necessary to develop and sustain soundness of wind and limb. Adequate locomotion, head-down grazing, and movement and activities throughout the day are necessary to establish and maintain pulmonary health. Unfortunately, no behaviorists or pulmonary health physiologists were invited. Sid Gustafson DVM

23 Oct 2012 3:03 PM
John from Baltimore

It's all about the money.  If you read the story in this magazine on Dr. Bramlidge's speech he said that they are now breeding the horse for television and not for durability.  This must be the politically correct way for saying they are breeding one shot wonders to win million dollar purses.  Until you change the way horses are paid and duribility counts for something the breed won't get sounder.  In my opinion the massive purses have lead as much to the unsoundness of the breed as drugs.

As for this data base why don't the regulators just come out and say you trainers are so low you will run a horse that can't make the course or your to dum to know it.  Any trainer with any horse sence knows which horses he has which have problems or they should.  Fines and penalties would be cheaper than a data base.

On the issue of claiming and returning horses that break down this is also backward.  The industry needs to look at the way a person who goes through the expense of laying a horse off has a chance to recoup his expenses of laying the horse off before it can be claimed.

The way it is now it's tap and go, don't be the last guy stuck with the horse.  The worst thing they ever did for the welfare of the horse was get rid of the 25% raise in claiming price to run after a claim.

And don't worry Eric about your friends and break downs, the H.B.P.A. can educate them on break downs while thier educating them on drugs.

23 Oct 2012 6:59 PM


We're almost on the same page, but:

1. "trainer negligence" would then have to be re-defined to far broader parameters than what the industry and the Law presently accept.

2. You lost me with the "Scientific pre-race inspection for TELEVISED races". Whether or not the race happens to be televised, the risk is the same for the horse.

Dr. Gustafson:

Some worthy advice, but I'm afraid "husbandry" alone won't come close to solving EIPH. Recall that the S. African study was on S. African (not N. American) racehorses.

25 Oct 2012 10:38 AM

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