Exercise-related fatalities: why they’re rising and what’s being done about it

One of the biggest challenges in the effort to reduce training-related fatalities is lack of information, according to Kentucky veterinary pathologist Laura Kennedy

Over the past ten years, the racing industry in the United States has made a seven-league stride forward in monitoring, reporting, collating and analyzing the circumstances surrounding racehorse fatalities during racing of an afternoon – efforts that appear to have wrought no trifling dividends.

The equine fatality rate in the country has shrunk from two horses per 1,000 starts in 2009 to 1.54 fatalities per 1,000 last year, according to the latest Jockey Club figures.

But one area in which the industry still trails the field is in monitoring, reporting, collating and analyzing the circumstances surrounding racehorse fatalities during training of a morning.   

“There’s a great divide between what happens on race-day and what happens during morning training because of factors of awareness,” said Steve Koch, executive director of the NTRA (National Thoroughbred Racing Association) Safety and Integrity Alliance.

What’s missing, he said, is a clear and comprehensive set of rules and reporting standards for all jurisdictions to follow, like there is for race-day fatalities. “When a horse gets injured in any way or a horse dies during the morning, what happens then?”

That’s a million-dollar question. For straddling the “great divide”, as Koch put it, is a growing body of research concerning training-related fatalities and injuries, synthesized from databases like California’s necropsy program, now in its 27th year.

And from this program, we know that, while race-day fatalities are on the wane in the state, exercise-related fatalities are on the increase.


According to California Horse Racing Board medical director Rick Arthur, there has been traditionally a 60/40 split between racing and training fatalities respectively in the state. But the last three years of available data shows that Thoroughbred fatalities have been split almost exactly 50/50 between racing and training.

This trend, said Arthur, could be due to a number of factors - less stringent medication regulations for horses in training as compared to race-day, for one. Nor do horses, for obvious reasons, undergo routine pre-training examinations by a state veterinarian, as they do before competition.

Perhaps a more salient factor could be how horses in California are now training more and racing less, in comparison to previous years, he said. That, and works have gradually gotten faster - “that’s pretty well documented”, he added.

Other tracks and jurisdictions are also noticing the “phenomenon” of an increase in training fatalities, said RMTC (Racing Medication and Testing Consortium) executive director Dionne Benson.

“The good equine medical directors out there, they track all of their injuries,” Benson said. “And they don’t just track them for the number, they track them because they want to understand if there’s something they can do to intervene before that injury happens.”

Interestingly, according to the research out of California, horses don’t necessarily suffer the same sorts of catastrophic injuries between mornings and afternoons.

“They can get the same injuries, for certain,” said Susan Stover, a professor of veterinary anatomy at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. But humeral and scapula fractures — bones found in the upper leg of a horse — are of “particularly high prevalence in training”, she said.

Other programs have yielded similar findings.

‘Lack of information’

For example, in Kentucky, which has been collecting exercise-related fatality data since 2012, humeral fractures occur “almost exclusively” in training, said Laura Kennedy, a veterinary pathologist at the University of Kentucky. “And the fracture is generally going to occur when the horse is coming off a lay-off,” she added.

As to why these types of training-related injury tend to occur in this manner, Kennedy said that the data just isn’t comprehensive enough in Kentucky to accurately attribute cause.

“I think one of the biggest challenges for the training fatalities is the lack of information we have for some of them,” she said, pointing to how, when studying some catastrophic injuries suffered during training, there’s a lack of things like training charts and medical history with which to glean an accurate picture.

One area in which the broader consensus is unequivocal, however, is in the existence of pre-existing conditions prior to a catastrophic injury occurring, and the pouring of cold water on the notion of horses simply taking a ‘bad step’.

Using combined training and race-day fatality data, researchers have found how the great majority of racehorses that experience catastrophic musculoskeletal injuries have pre-existing lesions “that correlate with, and predispose to, the fatal injury”.

‘We clearly don’t have the same level of scrutiny’

This information has resulted from a concerted effort among some jurisdictions to gather together the requisite data to better understand the circumstances behind any racehorse death.

The problem is, racetracks aren’t uniformly assiduous about monitoring and reporting what goes on during training of a morning. But then, there doesn’t exist a standard nationwide set of monitoring and reporting protocols.

The Jockey Club has been gathering information for its Equine Injury Database (EID) since 2008. And participating tracks have clear instructions when it comes to reporting race-day fatalities.

As per the Jockey Club: horses that “die or are euthanized as a direct result of injuries sustained participating in a race and within 72 hours of such race” are recorded as race-day fatalities. “This includes musculoskeletal injuries, non-musculoskeletal injuries, and sudden deaths.”

But the Jockey Club doesn’t offer the same specific guidelines when it comes to reporting exercise-related fatalities. That said, it’s “generally accepted” that the same 72-hour reporting window also applies to training-related fatalities, “because you have to draw the line somewhere”, said Steve Koch.

The Jockey Club does collect training-related fatality data, but uses only non-race day injury data (non-fatal) for building models predicting race-day injury.

According to Tim Parkin, a veterinarian and epidemiologist from the University of Glasgow, the Jockey Club is “always very careful” about quality control of race-day fatality data.

“But we clearly don’t have the same level of scrutiny around training,” he said. “So, it’s much more difficult to be sure about whether the training fatality injury data is complete.”

Even at Alliance-affiliated tracks, some incidents are missed

The Jockey Club has been collecting training-related fatality data since around 2009. Citing privacy concerns, the organization was unable to provide specific information on which tracks currently provide this information, and what they report exactly.  However, we know that tracks affiliated with the NTRA’s Safety and Integrity Alliance are required to report “fatalities suffered during any non-race period” to the Jockey Club’s EID.

A total of 23 tracks — which account for 75 percent of North American wagering handle — are fully accredited with the Safety and Integrity Alliance. But, even though affiliated tracks are required to report all training-related fatalities to the Jockey Club, that doesn’t mean all tracks actually do, admitted Steve Koch.

“To the extent that a jurisdiction is aware of a training fatality, we expect them to report that into the EID,” said Koch. “What are missed are the incidents that they are not aware of.”

There are a number of reasons why certain incidents might slip through the cracks. A horse badly injured exercising might subsequently be vanned to an outside clinic before being euthanized. And unless the horse’s movements are properly logged, the death might go unreported.

Koch said that, as a “best practice”, affiliated racetracks are encouraged to require their horse ambulances to log all movements, including the pick-up of injured horses during training.

“At Woodbine, that became a valuable piece of information,” said Koch, about a practice he instituted when he was vice president of Thoroughbred Racing for the Woodbine Entertainment Group. “And it became a really powerful piece of information when we were making racetrack surface decisions.”

Data meaningless unless it is analyzed

Some racetracks that aren’t affiliated with the NTRA’s Safety and Integrity Alliance also provide exercise-related fatality data to the EID – like Turf Paradise, in Arizona.

“What I noticed from this recent completed meet is that the fatality incidence was spiking more during morning workouts,” said Turf Paradise general manager Vincent Francia. “In other words, it was tracking greater than what it did the previous season.”

The track conditions weren’t to blame, said Francia - rather, they were able to determine that “a lot of the spike incidences in morning workout breakdowns were horses that were brought over from California no longer able to compete over there”.

All horse fatalities at Turf Paradise — race-day, exercise and non-exercise related — are reported to the state’s racing regulatory body. Furthermore, all race-day and exercise-related fatalities are reported to the Jockey Club’s EID, said Francia.

But not all tracks do the latter. And it’s “perhaps time” to make the reporting of training-related fatalities to the EID a uniformly mandated requirement, said Ed Martin, president of the Association of Racing Commissioners International.

“The Equine Injury Database was created as a private database. It was not created through the regulatory structure,” said Martin. “If it had been, it might be applicable to all.”

But all this data is meaningless if left unanalyzed.

Postmortem examination programs

In recent years, a variety of studies and programs have been instrumental in bringing to the fore the different circumstances that factor into any one race-day fatality.

Data has proven a correlation, for example, between the higher the speed (and the shorter the race), and an increased chance of catastrophic injury occurring. Horses unraced at two are also at higher risk of fatal injury during their racing careers.

When it comes to the pathology of any catastrophic injury, our understanding has been guided principally by state-run necropsy programs. California is one of a number of states — including Kentucky, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Maryland and Washington — that have instituted such programs.

But even in participating states, these programs vary in scope from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, with some choosing to examine all racehorse fatalities (racing and non-racing), while others primarily focus on race-day fatalities.

Historically in Arizona, for example, necropsies have been performed on an arbitrary basis, and rarely after horses were fatally injured during training. But the state is poised to implement a program that will make necropsies mandatory after every racehorse fatality, said Turf Paradise’s Vincent Francia.

Necropsies are quite often followed by mortality reviews conducted between regulators and the relevant horsemen. A mortality review is a compulsory requirement for accreditation with the NTRA’s Safety and Integrity Alliance.

But again, there’s a lack of uniformity between jurisdictions, with some foregoing a mortality review after a training fatality. Some, again, are looking to bridge that gap.

“Ultimately, we would like to expand to training fatalities,” said Mary Scollay, the equine medical director in Kentucky, about the state’s mortality review program. “But first things first, let’s get the current program working consistently and successfully.”

What to do with the facts

There’s also pressure from some quarters from within the industry to beef up mortality review programs nationwide. The reason? The greater the knowledge base, the better equipped regulators will be to identify and mitigate causes of catastrophic injury.

Just take a relatively recent report put together using three-years of data from New York’s necropsy program. In its conclusion, the report found that “evidence-based recommendations” from mortality reviews “may help to reduce equine fatal musculoskeletal injury”.

This notion, of course, encompasses training-related fatality data, because emerging research appears to debunk a number of pre-conceived notions regarding the best way to train racehorses and prevent injuries.

An axiom among many horsemen is that longer steadier works are preferable to shorter, sharper ones. But Sue Stover of UC Davis points out that shorter bouts of high-speed exercise — perhaps performed more frequently than would typically be the case, but over less total distance — might ultimately be better for racehorses’ bones.  

“A horse’s skeleton responds just like muscles in a muscle builder,” she said. The key is to give the bone time to adapt to its workload.

“So, you expose it in small increments to a higher speed, and then you let the bone respond,” Stover added. “But a bone does not need to see a mile at racing speed to respond. It can be quite short.”

It’s because of this evolution of new discoveries that Steve Koch said the industry must continue to “sharpen and hone” its processes for gathering together and analyzing all relevant data, like that for training injuries.

“We are coming along,” he said, “and I think there is a bright future where we’re going to arrive at the answers we need.”

View Comments
blog comments powered by Disqus

More Welfare Articles

By the same author