Equine Injury Database Shows Some Reforms Are Working; Now, What’s Next?

Since 2009, the Equine Injury Database (EID) has compiled fatal and non-fatal injury information for Thoroughbred racing in North America. As the database grows older and collects greater volumes and specificity of data, researchers are learning more about what places horses at a greater risk of fatal injury.

Dr. Tim Parkin, veterinary epidemiologist at the University of Glasgow, and Dr. Mary Scollay, executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, provided an update on 2019 EID data and trends in the final webinar for the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit Tuesday.

The EID records all reportable injuries to horses on the track, whether or not they’re fatal. Fatal injuries are those that occurred within 72 hours of a race. Official veterinarians at reporting racetracks record and report all injuries that happen before, during, and after the race, including those in the paddock or gallop-out. To the extent possible, they also report injuries taking place in the morning, either by observation or by checking horse ambulance logs.

As of 2019, 111 flat racing tracks representing 99 percent of the flat racing in the United States report their statistics to the EID. All steeplechase meets report to the database.

Here are a few of the things Parkin and Scollay have learned so far from the data:

• Since the EID began in 2009, equine fatalities are down 23 percent, which is a significant accomplishment. Parkin urges that regulators should not be complacent however, since that could allow the decline to plateau.

“We want to see a continued improvement over the next five to ten years,” said Parkin. “We’ve been thinking, and a lot of this discussion goes backwards and forwards between myself and the guys at The Jockey Club about what more could be done to improve this. Now we’re getting into very small improvements, but altogether they could probably make a 10 percent improvement or a 20 percent improvement.”

That includes looking at risks associated with horses that have gone through the sales, those racing on sealed tracks, those receiving shockwave therapy, extreme weather conditions, non-musculoskeletal fatalities, sire/pedigree analysis, race type, and voided claim rules.

• The trends identified early in the EID’s existence remain true. One of these is a horse’s appearance on the veterinarian’s list increases that horse’s risk of fatal injury. We now know that the horse’s risk never returns to that individual’s pre-list level for the remainder of the horse’s career.

• The older a horse is at the time of their first start, the higher their risk of fatal injury. A horse who makes his first start at four has a 33 percent higher chance of fatal breakdown than a horse making his first start as a 2-year-old. A 4-year-old first-time starter will always have a higher risk as compared to a horse who began its career at two. Parkin said this is supported by repeated studies on the importance of bone modeling and remodeling in young horses, which indicate that the skeleton adapts better to the rigors of racing when it experiences that level of exertion early. (Read more about this topic here.)

• Artificial surfaces remains the safest surface, followed by turf, followed by dirt. Turf surfaces see more variability year-to-year on fatality rates, however — probably because they are more at the mercy of weather variations.

• Researchers are now able to create to offer track- or region-specific models which could help identify risk factors specific to one area or horse population. Parkin and his team are also looking at data on a crop-by-crop basis to identify patterns.

• A horse who has had shockwave therapy has between 50 and 80 percent higher risk of fatal injury than one who has not had the treatment before. Interestingly, this finding was only statistically significant for horses who had the treatment 90 days and 180 days pre-race, but not for those 30 or 60 days pre-race. Parkin suspects this is because relatively few horses get shockwave and then return to the races within two months.

• Parkin has begun to focus more on non-musculoskeletal injuries. It seems that while musculoskeletal injuries, which make up 93 percent of fatal injuries, have decreased over time, injuries that don’t fall into this category like cardiac issues or sudden deaths have not. This, he said, is to be expected, as reforms implemented so far have focused on limb problems.

• As many readers have wondered over the years, a horse’s presence in a claiming race does increase his risk of fatal injury. A horse in a claiming race is at a statistically significantly higher rate as compared to one in an allowance race. The fatality rate for claiming races was 1.88 per 1,000 starts, while maiden claimers were 1.80 per 1,000 starts for data between 2014 and 2019. Interestingly, data also shows an elevated risk when a horse makes his first few starts as a claimer, but that risk may come down somewhat over time — suggesting that there are in fact, hard-knocking claimers who can run at the level and remain sound, but there are others who run at that level because they may have an issue.

• Parkin is hesitant to confer a cause-and-effect on these two facts, but since voided claim rules have gone into effect, fatality rates have come down. It also seems there is an early association between stricter voided claim rules (those that have more conditions that could void a claim) and decreased risk. It’s too early to pin progress just on those rules, Parkin cautions — a lot of other safety reforms have come into effect around the same time as voided claim rules, and the improvement we’re seeing over time could be a result of those.

• Parkin has looked to see whether the number of starters impacts fatality risk, both in North American and British data. The relationship does not seem to be consistent, he said — when there is a demonstrable association between the two, larger fields do represent a slightly elevated risk of fatality to each horse, but in many events there is not a statistical relationship between the two factors.

• The 2019 fatality rate of 1.53 per 1,000 starts represents the lowest in the database’s history so far — and it’s important to keep perspective on that. Scollay pointed out this means 99.847 percent of starts last year resulted in a horse finishing the race and safely returning to the barn.

“At the end of the day, we’re doing something right and we’re able to sustain that,” said Scollay. “I think that’s a really important message to get out there, that our work is paying off.”

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