Foundation leading data-driven approach to equine safety

Panelists at The Jockey Club's Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit

Eight years ago, The Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation and The Jockey Club hosted the first Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit. The two-day event aimed to tackle variables affecting safety and soundness of Thoroughbreds, and the workshop has made recommendations that have led to the creation of a national Equine Injury Database in the United States, significantly advanced research on racing surfaces, and successfully promoted a variety of rules adopted in some U.S. racing jurisdictions including eliminating high toe grabs on front shoes and voiding claims in the event of an equine injury. The fifth Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit is set for July 8-9 at Keeneland Race Course. Before the event, Ashley Herriman spoke with Ed Bowen, president of Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation. 

The entire Summit will be streamed live at

The founding ideal was simple, but it’s one that has gained increasing prominence in the global sport of Thoroughbred racing – promoting the health and longevity of equine athletes for the good of the sport.

The Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation and The Jockey Club will host the fifth summit on the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse this coming week at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Kentucky. Although not the only groups attempting to make progress on this topic, but the summit does have a proven track record of starting conversations that have led to actions in American racing, and some of the most progressive recent developments in racing – The Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database, launched in 2008 to track racing injuries, and the foundation of the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory – can be traced back to these summits. 

The idea for the meetings was born in 2005, when the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation endeavored to take the pulse of the industry to ensure their research emphasis matched up.

“It grew out of a meeting we had in 2005, in which we invited a bunch of stakeholders and we just wanted to discuss priorities,” said Ed Bowen, president of the Grayson-Jockey Club Foundation. “We were primarily interested that what the Foundation was funding reflected the priorities of a broad element of people. And out of those discussions grew the idea of a summit. This was before Barbaro, and of course, Barbaro created a spotlight on health and safety.” 

The first Welfare and Safety Summit was announced in July 2006, two months after Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro sustained a catastrophic injury in the Preakness Stakes. When the summit took place in October of that year, the colt was struggling with laminitis, the disease that would cause him to be euthanized in January 2007. 

The idea for The Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database came out of that first summit, with the goal to use a standardized format to identify the frequency, types, and outcome of racing injuries in order to create valid statistics and identify markers for horses at increased risk of injury. The database is also intended as an information source for research directed at improving safety and preventing injuries. Through its first five years ending on December 31, 2013, the database had collected and analyzed information from 1,871,522 starts. 

“The Equine Injury Database was kind of the brainchild of Dr. Mary Scollay,” Bowen said. “She had been interested in tracking injuries in her role as an examining vet for years, so with the help of the Jockey Club, we developed the Equine Injury Database format. I remember Mary saying, ‘If it takes more than a minute to fill out, it won’t get done.’ Behind the scenes, we have several people, including Dr. Scollay, who meet every week and go over the reports, and if a track has been lax in how they’re doing the report, they get in touch. That database takes a lot of babysitting.” 

Bowen credits the experience, creativity, and thoughtfulness of summit participants for the ideas and developments that the meeting has generated. 

“We’ve been very fortunate in having a lot of really good people, dynamic people, and we have addressed a lot of different topics, and some have been more successful than others,” Bowen said. “Also, we’ve had the weight of some science behind us. It’s really been an interesting procedure, and it comes down, in so many cases, to just a dynamic person.”

According to Bowen, racetrack operating officials are hungry for the types of data that some of the projects coming out of the summits have been able to provide. In addition to the Equine Injury Database, the idea that became the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory emerged from the second Welfare and Safety Summit in 2008. The founding of the laboratory, based at the University of Maine, was announced in 2009. Its mission focuses on composition analysis and performance testing of dirt and synthetic surface materials. Measurements are intended to help increase consistency and reduce the possibility of injury to horses and riders. Dr. Michael "Mick" Peterson and Dr. Wayne McIlwraith are the founding researchers behind the lab.

“We’ve got a lot of track maintenance people understanding the need to track weather patterns now,” Bowen said. “As of the most recent statistics, over 65 racing and training surfaces have been tested with various methods – the biomechanical hoof testing, GPS mapping, ground penetrating radar. You’re aware of maintenance in terms of the tractors going around in the afternoon, but the racetrack superintendents, they’re hungry for science. It’s really impressive how many of them hang on every word from Dr. Peterson…they are really amenable to letting a professor from the University of Maine help them keep their horses safe.” 

Bowen said he considers the creation of these two databases the biggest achievements of the summits to date.

“Those things are not exactly joined at the hip, but in a way they are,” he said. “The development of data that has helped, and will continue to help, racetracks be safer…that’s maybe the top. 

“For everything you’re pleased with, there are some things that frustrate. For example, we created the uniform national trainers test and study guide, and 17 jurisdictions utilize that now, but that means 21 don’t. It’s progress, but it’s not totally gratifying yet.”

Continuing education for horsemen is one area where Bowen is particularly interested to see more progress, and one of the sessions at the upcoming summit is devoted to “Advanced Horsemanship.”

“To me, the most frustrating is that we’ve just never been able to get much progress in promoting continuing education,” Bowen said. “The whole phrase 'continuing education' seems offensive to so many people that I think we need to call it ‘advanced horsemanship.’ We have the conviction that many horsemen today come up through the ranks very quickly and perhaps don’t have the grounding in horsemanship that you would like. And I’ve talked to some trainers, including some top level trainers who say ‘Gosh, we all have the cliché of learning something new every day, but we don’t have to learn it from our own hands on experience. We could learn from other people’s experience.’” 

Although progress may not be swift – and the fractured regulatory nature of American racing doesn’t help – Bowen is encouraged by what the summits have been able to achieve thus far, and optimistic about the future.

“This era in horse racing is fraught with problems and potential at the same time," said Bowen. "We’re pleased to be making progress at helping the animal – that’s the whole point.”

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