Summit shows a favorable future is within racing's grasp - but how do we get there?

Leaving the gate at Belmont Park.

The Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation and The Jockey Club hosted the fifth Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit at Keeneland Race Course on July 8-9. The two-day event aims to tackle variables affecting safety and soundness of Thoroughbreds, and the workshop has a proven track record of advancing data-driven initiatives in U.S. racing. Following the 2014 summit, Teresa Genaro reflects on the value of the information presented, and how best to disseminate it where it is needed most - on the ground at America's racetracks.  

As “Macbeth” draws to a close, its eponymous anti-hero sits high on Dunsinane Hill, secure, he thinks, because the witches have told him that he won’t be vanquished until Birnam Wood, the forest below his castle, “shall come against him.” 

Macbeth has many failures, ambition and insecurity among them, but it is arguably his lack of imagination that leads to his downfall. Unable to do anything except take the witches’ prophecy literally, he barricades himself in his castle, believing in his own invincibility, almost right up to the very moment that he loses his head.  

Comparably, the leaders of Thoroughbred racing are often accused of limited creativity, of being unable to adapt to a changing landscape, of being entrenched in traditional positions. Those accusations not uncommonly accompanied by dark prophecies about the sport meeting a dire end, itself the victim of a lack of vision. But had those who level such charges attended last week’s Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky, they may well have been encouraged to think that racing, unlike Macbeth, isn’t on the verge of meeting an ugly end. 

Among recent Summit successes is the creation of the Equine Injury Database (EID) in 2008, the groundbreaking repository of data on catastrophic breakdowns across North America. It is a significant accomplishment itself, but it also served as the starting point for Dr. Lisa Hanelt, an examining veterinarian at Finger Lakes Racetrack in central New York state, to conduct her own research about the breakdowns at her track.  

Using the risk factors for catastrophic equine injury identified by epidemiologist Dr. Tim Parkin of the University of Glasgow in his analysis of data in the EID, identified the ones that apply to the racing population at Finger Lakes, a lower-level track. Winnowing down Parkin’s nine factors to four that applied to Finger Lakes horses, she determined that the horses that suffered fatal injuries scored high on the scale of risk factors. 

While that might be a fairly obvious observation, Hanelt didn’t stop there, going on to identify additional risk factors that apply specifically to her horse population through a detailed review of the fatalities.  

Acknowledging the small sample size of the data, Hanelt then used the results of her investigation to determine how she and other personnel at the track could take steps to lower the number of racing fatalities at the track. 

One change she’s enacted is to enhance the monitoring of horses with recent owner/trainer changes, a group identified as at risk in the 2013 fatalities she studied.  She’s begun talking with trainers about using the track’s vet’s list as they consider claiming and acquiring horses through private sales. She’s stiffened the requirements to get off the vet’s list and return to races, noting that now, fewer than 50 percent of horses on the vet’s list at Finger Lakes are approved to race again.  

While Parkin put forth a set of risk factors based on data from the dozens of racetracks participating in the EID, Hanelt went one step further by identifying the factors present at her racetrack – suggesting that risk may not be constant from track to track – emphasized the importance of moving from the broad view to the narrow when examining the population at a specific track in order to take steps to prevent injury, a practice that she repeatedly noted could be undertaken at any track at minimal cost. 

Like Hanelt, Dr. Larry Bramlage, surgeon and partner at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Kentucky, offered a practical, research-based model for changes that can be implemented on the backstretch. Presenting a detailed overview of the contributing factors to equine injury, he focused on how training patterns might be adjusted to reduce bone damage and promote bone re-modeling, noting that “repetitive, cyclical stress” to the equine skeleton causes lameness and that generation of new bone doesn’t happen during active training.

Referring to a 1996 study in the American Journal of Veterinary Research, Bramlage said that horses who accumulated a total of 35 furlongs of racing or timed workouts in two months were 3.9 times more likely to be injured compared to horses with 25 furlongs of racing or timed workouts in the same timeframe. 

“High-speed furlongs,” he concluded, “result in bone damage that must be healed.” 

Bramlage recommended that training regimens include shorter intense workouts (of a little more than a furlong, as opposed to the standard four- or five-furlong works) and that they include work in straight lines, varying gaits, and both directions. Nothing that he suggested is typical of North American training patterns. 

Early in the program, Dr. Mary Scollay, the equine medical director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission who has worked extensively on the EID, discussed the equine mortality panels conducted by the KHRC following equine fatalities, observing that trainers often expressed regret about not waiting longer to begin training horses, unaware, she said, of the research—including that done on data in the EID—revealing that horses who don’t train as 2-year-olds are at higher risk for catastrophic injury than those that do. 

Which raises the question: How does practical, useful, data-based research make it to the backstretches and executive offices of North American racetracks? 

In attendance at the summit were individuals from the country’s finest tracks, veterinary practice, and breeding operations, and The Jockey Club announced that more than 1,800 people from more than a dozen countries had watched the live stream at some point. While all tracks can clearly benefit from the information presented, absent were representatives from racing jurisdictions and entities without the resources – or possibly the inclination – to send people to Lexington, the ones with barns full of lower-quality horses, the ones where trainers operate on tighter budgets.

Yes, the summit was streamed, and yes, the presentations are archived online by The Jockey Club. But as Dr. Jennifer Durenberger, director of racing at the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, pointed out, internet and computer access can be spotty for personnel at some of the more “blue-collar” tracks. There can also be a language barrier, given the number of Spanish-speaking workers on backstretches, and some of the presentations, particularly the veterinary ones, rely heavily on medical terminology not readily accessible to lay people. 

The racing industry is slowly shrugging off the accusation of inertia, providing information, research, and practices to help reduce injury on the country’s racetracks. But too much of that good work remains out of reach to all but a few of racing’s stakeholders, those with the resources and the interest to seek it out. 

Perhaps the next step is to talk not only about the work, but about how to get that work to the people who can most use it. Like Shakespeare’s Scotland at the end of “Macbeth,” the horses and humans in Thoroughbred racing deserve a favorable future, and this year’s summit shows that movement toward that future is within the industry’s grasp. Now, with useful data and research available, can the sport find the mechanism to disseminate findings and adjust accordingly? 

The answer should, of course, be a resounding, definitive “yes.”  The presentations of Hanelt, Bramlage, and the other participants at last week’s summit deserve more than to be poor players, strutting their hour on the stage, then heard no more.


View presentations and video from the 2014 Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit

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