SUNDAY EDITION | Racing industry harnesses data to reduce horse injuries
Fatal injury rates fell 14 percent in North America last year, but climbed at Kentucky racetracks, according to the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database.
LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) – Shore Runner was nearing the final furlong, charging down the stretch of Keeneland’s muddy track on a Saturday afternoon last October. Then he took a step that ended his life.
The horse’s front left leg buckled. He collapsed headfirst, hurled jockey Kendrick Carmouche to the ground and spun wildly in full view of the Keeneland grandstand.
Shore Runner, a five-year-old gelding and the favorite to win the Woodford Stakes, was later euthanized. He was one of 24 horses that died last year after being injured on a Kentucky racetrack.
The figures are made public as part of a broad data collection effort at nearly all racetracks in the U.S. and Canada. Started in 2008 -- one year after the death of Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro -- the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database helps quantify one of the sport’s uncomfortable truths: Its athletes sometimes die while competing.
“Horse racing, as a rule, collects tremendous amounts of data. But we didn’t have any data about the health of our athletes,” said Dr. Mary Scollay, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission’s equine medical director. “And so we now have a reliable source of information and are just now beginning to understand all the different ways that we can use it to enhance health initiatives and better protect the horses and the jockeys on their backs.”
The five Kentucky tracks that host thoroughbred meets provide their data to the Jockey Club, but only two go a step further by making the information public. Churchill Downs, home to this week’s Kentucky Derby, is among the tracks that don’t publish their data.
Statewide, the only glimpse into fatality rates comes from state regulators, who compile annual figures using their access to the database. (The frequency of breakdowns is a better gauge of injuries, rather than the total deaths, since the number of horses entered in races fluctuates each year.)
Shore Runner’s death helped push the fatality rate at state tracks to its highest level in six years in 2015. For every 1,000 horses that broke from a starting gate, 1.57 suffered a fatal injury while racing – up from a recorded low of 1.11 the year before.
Even so, thoroughbreds in Kentucky die from those injuries less often than they do at tracks across North America. And while Shore Runner and six-year-old Skyring both died after racing at Keeneland last Oct. 3, the track had the lowest rate of fatal incidents among the Kentucky tracks that publish their statistics.
Last year’s increase in both breakdowns and the rate of those injuries in the state is a reminder to “stay vigilant,” Scollay said. “We can do better, and on a daily basis we work to do better.”
Injury rates declining
Across North America, racetracks did do better last year. Fatal injury rates fell by 14 percent, to 1.62 per 1,000 starts, representing the lowest level since the Jockey Club began collecting data.
The declines occurred on all racing surfaces and among all age groups. Scollay, who helped create the database and consults the Jockey Club on it, said increasingly thorough pre-race veterinary exams, changes in drug rules and more scrutiny of track surfaces all contributed to the drop.
Researchers found that horses were more likely to be fatally injured the older they get, and that shorter races – such as the 5 1/2–furlong Woodford Stakes in which Shore Runner broke his leg – had higher injury rates.
In New York, a task force investigating a spate of breakdowns at Aqueduct Racetrack in late 2011 and early 2012 used similar analysis to understand trends among those deaths, said Scollay, a task force member. Among other things, the group recommended more information about pre-race scratches be included in the Jockey Club’s database.
Aqueduct reported a fatal injury rate of 1.78 per 1,000 starts last year, down 16 percent from the year before and nearly 41 percent lower than 2012 levels. New York’s other two thoroughbred racetracks, Belmont Park and Saratoga Race Course, also show their data online.
But most tracks, including Churchill Downs, Kentucky Downs and Ellis Park, choose to shield fatal injury data from public view.
Churchill shares statistics with the Jockey Club but does not publish them online because the numbers “can be easily misinterpreted,” said John Asher, the track’s vice president of racing communications. He said track officials monitor and analyze incidents, as well as any abnormalities in the racing surfaces.
In explaining the track’s policy, Asher noted that the racing commission monitors the information submitted by Churchill Downs. “We think we fulfilled the responsibility of it being available to the public,” he said.
The commission has “visibility” on data provided by the tracks it regulates, according to Scollay. But the commission, an arm of the Kentucky Public Protection Cabinet, wasn’t able to produce a single record documenting annual deaths and the fatality rate at Churchill Downs in response to a WDRB News request under the state’s open records law.
Keeneland makes its statistics public in an effort to be more transparent, said Rogers Beasley, the racing association’s vice president of racing.
“Look at what the NFL has gone through now with concussions, where they’ve hidden all that all those years,” Beasley said on a recent afternoon. “Look what they’ve done. It’s wrong not to be able to show these things. You want people to come to the game. You want to give them the full picture of what’s happening from a safety viewpoint.”
A short time later, he was standing on the Keeneland track, watching the aftermath of a horse that had just collapsed.
Injuries part of sport
It was April 22. Six horses turned for home in Keeneland’s fifth race. Spikechevious, a 37-1 longshot, had started awkwardly and never gotten close to the lead.
The three-year-old colt stumbled in the stretch, tossing jockey Jesus Castanon to the ground. Beasley and a crowd of track officials gathered along the rail to watch the horse get taken away by van.
The horse and jockey both avoided serious injury in the spill, the Daily Racing Form reported. Meanwhile, a horse named Inspire Courage won the race for owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey.
“I hate to have to say it, but any time that you race any kind of an animal or a human being -- anything, basketball players, football players -- you’re always going to get some injuries,” Ken Ramsey said. “Just try to keep it to a minimum the best you can.”
He said the Jockey Club’s database is a “good” step, as are pre-race exams meant to catch injuries. Those precautions led to International Star, the Ramsey colt entered in last year’s Kentucky Derby, being scratched the day of the race.
Ramsey said the horse appeared to have a sore foot, but several veterinarians couldn’t agree on how serious the problem was. They found a pus pocket once the horse’s shoe was removed.
“It destroyed my hopes of winning the Derby, but that was an excellent decision because he would have run up the track,” Ramsey said.
The racing industry’s biggest days, including the Derby, have helped magnify the public’s interest in the health of thoroughbreds. After crossing the finish line in the 2008 race, with 157,770 people looking on, the filly Eight Belles broke both of her front ankles. She was euthanized while lying on the track.
Two years earlier, Derby winner Barbaro pulled up shortly after the start of the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore with fractures in a hind leg. Despite surgery and months of veterinary care, the horse developed complications and was euthanized in early 2007.
Nicole Meiner, 23, was watching the races at Keeneland on a live stream last October when Shore Runner fell. She said in an email that the breakdown was probably “the worst that I ever saw happen live,” in part because it was the second fatal injury to a horse that day.
“As a fan, it’s difficult to talk about,” Meiner said. “Although some extremist groups would try to say we don't care about the animals, it's hard to see a horse go down, whether it's a claimer who has never finished in the money or a famous horse like Barbaro or Red Cadeaux. Fans of the sport ARE fans of the animals, and we care about their well being.”
Now in its ninth year, the Jockey Club’s database collects more than statistics on horses that die from racing injuries.
It also tracks racing and training injuries that aren’t fatal -- in all, about 75,000 records, said Kristin Leshney, senior counsel with the Jockey Club. She said more than half of the data is for pre-race scratches.
“What that tells me is that we’re getting a lot of the injuries before the horse even starts the race,” she said.
Over time, more than 100 racetracks have chosen to provide injury data to the Jockey Club; 32 have made the statistics public.
“We are fully supportive and really encourage tracks to be more transparent in their data. … The goal of having transparency for racing helps with integrity, and we fully support that,” she said.
Leshney said she would like researchers to look more closely at injury data, including career-ending fractures or those that result in long layoffs.
“There’s no magic answer,” she said. “But we’re certainly, I think, making strides and the reduction in fatalities this year hopefully is indicative of that trend.”
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