This is the first in a series of posts, corresponding with horse racing’s Triple Crown, examining safety issues facing the sport.
Saturday will mark the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby, when the top three-year-old horses from around the world will compete for the garland of roses in America’s oldest continuous sporting event. The Derby has gone off on the first Saturday in May uninterrupted since 1875, and as the years have worn on, the crowds and ceremonies have only grown.
The Sport of Kings may not hold the prominent place in American culture it once did, but it hasn’t been immunized from the debates that have enthralled the sports that have taken its place. Like baseball, it has battled the spread of performance-enhancing drugs. Like football, it has faced its own existential crisis, a question about whether it is too dangerous and whether it can be made safe for its participants.
Like both sports, those battles have featured prominently in the national media — perhaps never more so than they did in 2008, when the Derby champion, Big Brown, was linked to steroids and runner-up, Eight Belles, collapsed in a heap after crossing the finish line and was euthanized on the Churchill Downs dirt. The sport was already facing questions — and asking them of itself — before that Saturday, and the questions have only grown stronger since.
American racetracks have one of the highest collective breakdown rates in the world, and even though horses here have more opportunities to enter the starting gates, they do so far less often than many of their foreign competitors. A New York Times analysis found that American race horses had an on-track incident rate of 5.2 per 1,000 starts; by comparison, a Toronto racetrack the Times studied had a rate of just 1.4 per 1,000 starts. The average number of starts for American horses plunged to an all-time low — 6.1 — in 2010; by comparison, foreign horses average as many as 18 starts in their careers.
The question, of course, is why America’s racing industry is more dangerous than others, and the search for an answer has led to more scrutiny over the way horses are bred and trained, the drugs administered to them on training and race days, and the types of surfaces on which they race. The solution, however, won’t be found until the industry has more data about what causes catastrophic breakdowns, doctors and industry experts said.
“That’s the ultimate question we want to answer, but the data we have is very limited,” Dr. Stephanie Preston-Meuser from the University of Kentucky’s Gluck Equine Research Center told ThinkProgress.
And so the search for more data is underway, at the Gluck Center and throughout the industry. “All of us are trying to figure out ways to make racing safer for riders and horses,” Dr. Rick M. Arthur, the equine medical director at the University of California-Davis and the California Horse Racing Board said. “It is an ongoing effort. It’s an industry that doesn’t necessarily handle change well, but we have to pay closer attention to the welfare of our horses.”
The American horse racing industry has traditionally eschewed the sharing of data about horses — “If a horse was winning because you painted his ear pink, you didn’t want to tell anyone,” Preston-Meuser, who spent 25 years riding, training, and owning horses before she became a doctor, joked — but that process has slowly begun to change. “We used to be very hush-hush about anything,” she said. “Now we’re saying, ‘We’re all in this together, and we have to find a solution.’ The industry is more open.”
That shift in mentality has led to the collection of more data about racehorses and their health, but challenges remain. It is still hard for trainers and owners, and more importantly, veterinarians and examiners, to obtain full health records for individual horses, who are often sold at auctions at a young age or claimed by new owners (through claiming races, in which horses are for sale until race time) at different points in their careers. That lack of information can make it tough for trainers and owners to properly treat and train a horse once they get it; it makes it even harder for doctors and researchers to assess why the horse broke down once they study it later.
And while the focus both inside and outside the industry has turned largely to two different solutions — less medicine and new types of tracks — little research exists about the role either plays in catastrophic breakdowns. Medication has become the primary focal point in recent years. The industry banned the use of anabolic steroids in 2008, and states have moved to limit popular non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and other steroids. Those drugs are used to treat bleeding, joint and muscle pain, and respiratory problems, and opponents say they can often mask injuries that may lead to breakdowns on the track. States have limited the types and amounts of popular drugs that can be administered and the times at which they can be administered, but oversight remains an issue in a sport where, generally, the only horses tested are those that finish in the top three or suffer a race-related injury.
Other states, including New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) formed a task force to deal with breakdowns after a rash of on-track incidents at Aqueduct Racetrack last spring, have moved to increase testing, pre- and post-race examinations, and necropsies (autopsies of dead horses). The National Thoroughbred Racing Association has beefed up its examination and medical testing protocols, and medication and testing remains a key point of discussion and research at universities and industry summits on horse safety.
At the same time, states have moved to change the type of track on which horses were running. California now requires all thoroughbred tracks to use a synthetic blend instead of dirt. The synthetic track has also been adopted elsewhere, including at Keeneland, the second-largest track in Kentucky. The belief is that running on a synthetic track lessens the demand on horses’ fragile legs.
On none of these fronts, however, is the research conclusive, according to Preston-Meuser. “It’s very speculative at this point,” she said.
“There are some simple fixes to things,” Michael Ziegler, the executive director of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s Safety and Integrity Alliance, said (the Safety Alliance oversees and accredits safety standards and protocols at American racetracks). “Are your starting gates padded? A lot of horses get scratched up in the starting gates. That’s a no-brainer. But other things — does racing surface directly correlate to injury? Or are we just speculating? Those are more complicated.”
Still, the industry has made improvements. Research labs like those at Kentucky and UC-Davis have begun generating more data than existed a decade ago. Medical practices are better, and even though horses are still dying on racetracks across the country, an injury is now far from a certain death sentence. “We’ve seen that horses that were fairly likely to be euthanized years ago are now returning to racing,” Arthur said. Some states have moved to mandate necropsies for any horse that dies in a race-related incident.
Horseracing, like any sport, won’t ever inoculate itself from the breakdown of its athletes. But through the better sharing of information, comprehensive health records, and research into medicine, track composition, and horses that do suffer on-track injuries and fatalities, doctors and industry insiders appear confident that they can figure out why horses break down, then take steps to fix it. The key right now, though, is more research into every area of what Ziegler called a “multifactorial” issue. And that research will hopefully lead to better breeding, training, racing, and medical practices.
“If we’re going to have horses get hurt, we need to learn from it and get as much data as we can, so we can correlate that at some point in the future,” Ziegler said. “The best example is Hong Kong. Everything there is contained. They have so much good information that they can pinpoint a specific horse and say this one is at a greater risk to breakdown. If we had that information, we could pinpoint those markers. That might mean time off, or greater scrutiny for that horse. Or it might mean not racing at all.”
“We’re not there yet,” Ziegler added. “But we’re gaining on it.”