Count: 2 horse racing deaths per 1,000 starts
More than two thoroughbreds die a day from injuries at North American racetracks, according to early results from a monitoring system launched amid the high-profile deaths of Barbaro and Eight Belles.
Preliminary numbers from the Jockey Club's equine injury database covering a one-year period beginning Nov. 1, 2008, show that one of every 500 thoroughbred starts at North American racetracks resulted in a fatal injury.
Based on the 378,864 starts in the study, that represents 773 deaths. The study only counts injuries involving thoroughbreds, leaving out fatalities to other breeds or those that happen during morning training.
Jockey Club executive director Matt Iuliano said Wednesday that he hopes the information could serve as a ``benchmark'' to help guide future safety enhancements at racetracks. The sport has already taken various other steps, including a near-universal ban on anabolic steroids and new guidelines governing everything from whips to horse shoes.
Mary Scollay, Kentucky's equine medical director, helped develop the standardized reporting system now used by 81 tracks, representing 86 percent of the racing days in the U.S. and Canada that don't involve jumping. She says it is too early to make any sweeping decisions about what should change based on the preliminary results.
``It's baby steps,'' Scollay said. ``One year's worth of data is just a blink of an eye in terms of time. We're just getting started.''
According to a separate count by The Associated Press last year, state racing jurisdictions reported more than 1,200 horse deaths at thoroughbred racetracks in 2008 - some involving breeds other than thoroughbreds. There were similar totals for the five years before that.
The numbers could be much higher because some states haven't always monitored racehorse deaths, while others, including Kentucky, don't count fatal accidents that occur during training. In some places, those represent as much as a third of the total.
The idea for a uniform tracking system grew out of a discussion at an October 2006 safety summit in Lexington. Barbaro, who won the Kentucky Derby that year, broke down in the Preakness Stakes and was euthanized with laminitis several months later following a gallant effort to save him.
Then in 2008 came another devastating racing fatality witnessed by a national television audience. The filly Eight Belles finished second in the Derby, but sustained two broken ankles while jogging past the finish line. She had to be euthanized minutes later.
Eight Belles' trainer, Larry Jones, called the new tracking system a critical first step toward improving safety.
``There's a lot of different reasons some horses break down,'' Jones said. ``Do you blame it on the track or blame the horse? You can't just go in and say this is black and this is white. But trying to understand how and why it's happening is a great thing to know. I don't think we can have an information overload.''
Although the tracking system monitors such things as racing surface, weather condition and the class of the horse, the Jockey Club agreed not to release the information by racetrack, hoping to generate more participation.
That decision has some critics, including Keeneland president Nick Nicholson. He says his track's fatality rate is less than half the national average, something he attributes to a synthetic racing surface that replaced the dirt oval at the Lexington track.
``I think every track should release its data,'' Nicholson said. ``Every participant deserves to know what the record is of the racetrack they're going to or betting on.''
Arthur Hancock, owner of Stone Farm in central Kentucky and a longtime proponent of safety changes, praised the tracking system and other recent improvements but said far more must be done. He especially wants even tighter drug rules than those currently in place.
``Horses should run on natural ability instead of chemical activity,'' Hancock said. ``If it ever happens, I think you'll see the rate of fatal injuries go down.''
The analysis of the injury data was performed by Tim Parkin, a veterinarian and epidemiologist from the University of Glasgow in Scotland, who plans to elaborate on the conclusions at another safety summit this summer in Lexington.
Alex Waldrop, president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, said he believes racing is safer now than it was two years ago because of recent improvements, although he acknowledges it can never be completely accident-free.
``There's no question there is risk involved in horse racing,'' Waldrop said. ``It's not realistic to say we're able to eliminate injuries or catastrophic injuries. But I do know the industry as a whole is committed to making racing as safe as possible for human and equine athletes.''