Too many horses continue to break down: Racing’s future demands we stop it happening

Jerry Bailey: “If we can do away with the whip and that leads to drawing in fans who are now offended by it, that’s a small price to pay.”

As Thoroughbred racing in the U.S. reopens its major racetracks, the industry has a number of ongoing issues beyond the impact of the Covid-19.

In recent weeks, there have been meetings convened to address important industry racing and integrity issues. The Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation was scheduled to hold its ninth annual Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse summit at Keeneland yesterday (June 23), but it was cancelled. Fortunately, the foundation chose to hold five weekly online meetings every Tuesday from May 12 through June 9.

There have been some important recent technological developments in the racing industry, a number of which have been supported with funding by the foundation. In 2019, it awarded total funding of $1,338,858 for eight new projects from seven universities, nine continuing projects and three career development awards. 

In May, 2019, I wrote an article that profiled three new research projects, including two from University of California-Davis. One of these was Training programs for prevention of fetlock injury and the lead researcher on it was Dr Sue Stover, who was the panel member for the June 2 discussion on the California Necropsy Program.

In that article, I selected these three projects to briefly profile because, thanks to efforts of Dr Stover and others, we now understand that an overwhelming number of catastrophic Thoroughbred injuries has resulted from a pre-existing condition. This article contains a brief Q&A with Dr Stover regarding her thoughts on how that project might be best implemented.

Here are the details of the June 2 panel:

California Necropsy Program: Lessons learned from Dr Sue Stover’s research

Moderator: Dr Jennifer Durenberger, Jockey Club Steward, New York Racing Association
Panel Member: Dr Sue Stover, Professor of Surgical and Radiological Sciences, UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine 

I had the great pleasure of working with Dr Durenberger when she was an examining veterinarian at the NYRA racetracks. She went on to hold senior positions in California, Louisiana, Massachusetts and back at NYRA as the chief examining vet. She then accepted her current position as Jockey Club Steward as noted above. Along the way, she carved out time from her schedule to complete a law degree.

I will make a few comments on the presentation, but I must tell you in all sincerity, that every racehorse owner, trainer and racetrack executive should take the one hour and 11 minutes to watch this informative discussion

Understanding and preventing catastrophic injuries to our horse population is the biggest challenge I believe the industry faces. Experts such as Dr Stover and Dr Durenberger are highly skilled and informed professionals and it is incumbent on any member of a team associated with a racing Thoroughbred that they be enlightened by them regarding best practices in the interest of the horse. There is a very informative Q&A discussion at the end, and I do believe that these panelists are two of the most knowledgeable and articulate experts on this complex topic.

First, a bit of history about the California Post-Mortem Progam, which was founded in 1990. The program statute mandates that every horse that dies at the racetrack under the jurisdiction of the California Horseracing Board (CHRB) must be necropsied. A necropsy is the equine equivalent of an autopsy. I believe California was the first state to mandate necropsies on every horse dying at a CHRB track. This program has provided the state with a deep inventory of necropsy data. The New York Gaming Commission did not require necropsies on horses until 2009.

At the outset of the panel, Dr Stover stated, “Horses are not born with racehorse skeletons. Training builds racehorse skeletons,” which she attributed to Dr Larry Bramlage, an internationally recognized equine orthopedic surgeon. Stover went on to state her key findings:

  • Catastrophic injuries are associated with pre-existing injuries.
  • Injuries occur in the same predictable locations.

Based on these findings, these are the significant opportunities for the practitioners:

  • Identify affected horses and prevent unrecoverable injury.
  • Know where to look for mild injuries
  • Develop imaging techniques for injury detection.
  • Identify risk factors for injury.

At the risk of oversimplification, the team that manages the horse in training ( i.e. the trainer, the vet, the groom, the exercise rider) has to be aware of how the horse biologically adapts to the workout cycles of exercise and recovery. A critical question for the trainer and the team is how does the horse react to a recent event? Dr Stover emphasized the most important element in the care of the horse is “Horsemanship, Horsemanship, Horsemanship”.

In the Q&A, she said one thing that surprises her fairly regularly is the number of occasions when a horse has had a catastrophic injury and has not been seen or treated by a vet.

While the majority of the discussion was presented by Dr Stover, Dr Durenberger was asked in her career as an examining vet what ‘hot spots’ did she focus on most often. Her answer was the shins on the front legs and the related joints as they were the most common injuries and represented the highest risk to the horse, the jockey and other runners in a race.

These are a few thoughts of mine, but I cannot emphasize enough how insightful and important these experts are and the information they can provide for the management and treatment of the racehorse.

The next panel of interest is the June 9 discussion on the recently published 2019 statistics and racing fatality data from Jockey Club’s Equine Industry Database.

Equine Injury Database: 2019 Statistics and Racing Fatality Data

Moderator: Dr Mary Scollay, Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer, Racing Medication & Testing Consortium
Presenter and Panel Member: Dr Tim Parkin, Professor of Veterinary Epidemiology, University of Glasgow

If you are not familiar with issues related to the compilation of the database, it would serve you very well to listen to the presentation as both Dr Scollay and Dr Parkin have been involved with the Equine Injury Database since its inception and are knowledgeable on all aspects of the project.

Below is the aggregate fatal injury rate for all surfaces for 2019 (flat racing only). Further below are some stats relating to the 2019 statistical rate for the three different surfaces: Dirt, Turf and Synthetic. 


As you can see, the actual injury rate for Synthetics dropped below 1.0 for the first time since the database was launched in 2009. Despite the disruption in the Synthetic racing surface business, the fatal injury rate for Synthetic decline since 2009 is 37 percent. The fatal injury drop for the Dirt surface for the period is 24.1 percent and the fatal injury decline in Turf is 19.6 percent.

While it is a conversation for another day, I have written recently that there are many strong considerations for replacing some Dirt surfaces with new synthetic materials. 

  • Dirt, 1.60: On Dirt surfaces, there was a 14.2 percent decrease in risk of fatal injury from 2018 to 2019 (statistically significant P=0.04). Since 2009, on dirt there has been a 24.1 percent drop in the risk of fatal injury (statistically significant P<0.001).  
  • Turf, 1.56: Turf surfaces had a 30 percent increase in risk of fatal injury from 2018 to 2019 (not statistically significant). Since 2009, on Turf there has been a 19.6 percent drop in the risk of fatal injury (not statistically significant). 
  • Synthetic, 0.93: The rate of fatality in 2019 dropped below 1.0 for the first time since annual summaries were first reported in 2009. Synthetic surfaces saw a 24 percent decrease in the risk of fatal injury from 2018 to 2019 (not statistically significant). Since 2009, on synthetic there has been a 37 percent drop in the risk of fatal injury (statistically significant P=0.04).

Here is a link to the Jockey Club Safety website. Please click on Equine industry to get to the individual tracks.

Turning to 2019, the aggregate fatality rate of 1.53 is an 8.9 percent decline (improvement) and the decline over the 11 years of the database is 23.5 percent. If you go through the presentation above, the catastrophic rate is higher than the five other major racing jurisdictions. So how should we think about this?

For me, it is very simple, the U.S. Thoroughbred industry collectively is not taking appropriate measures to improve our catastrophic injury rate. The first example of that is the number of significant tracks that do not allow the Jockey Club to publish or disclose to anyone the injury rate for their tracks.

Some example tracks include:

  • Canterbury Park
  • Churchill Downs, Inc. tracks
  • Kentucky Downs
  • Oaklawn Park
  • Parx
  • Penn National tracks
  • Tampa Bay Downs
  • The only  reason I can imagine for a track not disclosing the catastrophic injury is that it does not want to make an investment in racing surfaces, safety measures, veterinary staff or serious drug testing, such as out-of-competition and other measures. It concerns me greatly that the industry is providing ammunition for the well-financed and politically adept animal rights groups on both the catastrophic injuries and the use of the whip.

Here are some tracks that do publish their injury rates.

  • NYRA
    Aqueduct: 2018 - 1.57; 2019 - 0.81
    Belmont: 2018 - 0.98; 2019 - 1.45
    Saratoga: 2018 - 0.97; 2019 - 1.28

  • Stronach Group
    Gulfstream: 2018 - 1.41; 2019 - 1.41
    Golden Gate: 2018 - 1.12; 2019 - 0.64
    Laurel: 2018 - 1.87; 2019 - 1.22
    Pimlico: 2018 - 2.33; 2019 - 4.60
    ​Santa Anita: 2018 - 2.04; 2019 - 3.01

  • Colonial Downs: 2013 - 1.10; 2019 - 0.00
  • Del Mar: 2018 - 0.79; 2019 - 0.62    
  • Keeneland: 2018 - 1.77; 2019 - 3.21
  • Woodbine: 2018 - 1.06; 2019 - 1.31

Here are a few observations:

NYRA had a similar experience in 2012 at Aqueduct to Santa Anita in 2019. It has made some investments in track maintenance, vet     policies, personnel etc. Each of its three tracks have been below 1.0 in one of the past two years. NYRA has installed a new surface on the main track at Saratoga for 2020.

Del Mar had remarkable numbers for the past two years with its Dirt surface.

Synthetics at Golden Gate and Woodbine were excellent.

Keeneland has struggled the last two years with its Dirt surface.

Colonial Downs had no injuries on Turf or Dirt with 1,145 runners in 2019 in its first racing season since 2013.

A war erupted between the Jockeys’ Guild and the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) over a regulation severely limiting the use of the whip at all CHRB tracks. Having this unpleasant dispute in public is a lose-lose proposition for both the CHRB and the jockeys. The new whip rule passed at the CHRB meeting is probably the most restrictive rule that a racetrack has adopted regarding the use of the whip.

Here is an excerpt from the Jockeys’ Guild press release.

“The CHRB’s decision was done to pacify the radical animal rights organizations and the individuals who have made clear their intention to abolish racing. Additionally, the Manager of Policy and Regulations for the CHRB inferred that its role was about pleasing Sacramento. This speaks volumes about the CHRB’s attitude and subsequent dismissal of what is in the best interest of racing and we believe definitely swayed the vote.”

The harsh reality is that this statement is correct in some respects. The mainstream animal rights organizations are not radical, but they do have a very large constituency and are extremely well funded. The catastrophic injuries at Santa Anita in the spring of 2019 resulted in major national media coverage and a strong vocal minority that questioned both the breakdowns and the use of the whip by the jockeys. The general public was speaking out on social media and journalists were writing not about excessive use of the whip but why there was any use of the whip at all. 

Here is a paragraph from an article I wrote near the height of the media uproar in April 2019.

“There has been some suggestion from the racing industry suggesting that the whip and Lasix changes have nothing to do with the Santa Anita breakdowns. While that may be factually correct, the Thoroughbred racing industry nationally has come under severe criticism from the general public for concerns about the use of the whip and race-day medications. In following the developments during this time at Santa Anita, it was clear that there were serious concerns by mainstream animal rights groups and private individuals regarding use of the whip and medication policies.”

Finally, the Jockeys’ Guild was struck a huge blow when, on the cover of the June 15 Thoroughbred Daily News, Bill Finley wrote a good article with the headline Why Jerry Bailey Is No Fan Of The Whip

In it, Bailey said racing is losing out on the opportunity to cultivate new fans because of the whip. “If we can do away with the whip and that leads to drawing in fans who are now offended by it, that’s a small price to pay,” he said. 

Bailey was certainly cognizant of how many people were concerned about the use of the whip on horses.

The whip: Jerry Bailey has a point

Whips have been part of racing since the beginning because it is assumed that their use can make the horse try harder and run faster. Bailey says that just isn’t the case.

“I feel the reins are the best tool to keep your horse straight,” he said. “Absolutely and without a doubt, the reins are your steering mechanism, not your whip. There are jockeys who feel you need the whip as a safety device. If a horse is out of control and is going to go over one fence or another or go over a pack of heels in a race, the whip is not going to help you. You need to use the reins in that case. The reins are the tools to use and in my opinion the whip is not going to do you much good.”

Coronavirus has had one benefit for Thoroughbred racing. No fans in the stands has meant no animal rights demonstrations at the tracks and in the papers. However, this could be simply the eye of the storm. 

I am deeply encouraged by the work and effort by professionals like Dr Stover and Dr Durenberger, who fully understand the risks presented by equine injuries on our racetracks. However, reviewing the modest, incremental gains in the Equine Injury Database is of grave concern as the public, fueled by the noise and money of animal rights activists, will not tolerate horses breaking down on the tracks at these historical rates. 

I would strongly advocate for the newly formed Thoroughbred Safety Coalition to work with the Jockey Club Safety Committee on some new strategies and benchmarks. I also feel very strongly that the tracks have to make their injury data available to the public. 

Finally, something has to be done about individual states creating their own idiosyncratic rules regarding use of the whip. Imagine a jockey from Maryland traveling to Del Mar for his first race in Breeders’ Cup 2021 and subsequently getting disqualified for a California whip violation that he/she was unaware of. Please save us from ourselves.

Finally, on reflection, I think that Jerry Bailey is right. I have watched and bet on thousands of races and I do not recall ever thinking, “Wow, my jock really won that race with his use of the stick.” 

Let’s move on.

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