Palmer: Want To Make Racing Safer? Get Your COVID-19 Vaccine

As COVID-19 vaccine rollouts continue to ramp up across many racing states this week, New York State Gaming Commission equine medical director Dr. Scott Palmer said the best thing racing industry participants can do to make horses safer is to sign up for a shot.


Because in analyzing data on Thoroughbred fatalities from 2020, Palmer said he has determined the COVID-19 pandemic could be considered a novel risk factor for fatal injuries last year. Overall, there were 24 percent fewer fatalities per 1,000 starts in the region in 2020 as compared to 2019, but Palmer noticed some shifts in the types of fatalities that did occur. The number and percentage of overall fatalities that occurred during racing (versus training or other activities) went down, which Palmer said was to be expected since the pandemic pause resulted in resulted in fewer race cards in 2020 versus 2019.

He did see a change in the proportion of fatalities occurring in training, however – especially in juvenile runners.

“We had a very unusually high number of fatalities in 2-year-old racehorses, particularly at Saratoga Racetrack this summer,” said Palmer, who presented the data during a teleconference hosted by the Association of Racing Commissioners International. “There are always many factors that enter into fatalities and I’m not going to try to tell you COVID was the only reason for that, but you put COVID on top of a really crummy winter where it was tough to train anyway, and it wasn’t like we could move the Saratoga meet back to September.”

Once racing was cancelled, Palmer said it didn’t make sense for some owners that keep their horses on the farm to send them to the track as usual and pay a day rate when they had no idea how much longer racing would be shut down. Some 2-year-olds didn’t post their first official timed works until June, much closer to their debuts than usual. Out of the eighteen 2-year-old fatalities in 2020, eight occurred in horses that had never made it to the races.

“That’s a really big deal,” Palmer said. “That was an enormously different experience than we’d ever had before.”

Palmer pointed out that many horses, including those 2-year-olds, did not get the usual timeframe for the bone remodeling process which is crucial to preparing the skeleton for the rigors of racing.

(Read more about the way racing and training impacts the skeleton for young horses here.)

Equine (and human) skeletons undergo a constant cycle of response to environmental stressors, with the bone surface absorbing micro damage, then removing damaged bone cells and replacing them with new cells. In this way, the skeleton can respond dynamically to the stresses it undergoes, which is why a period of gradually-increasing workload ahead of a race prepares the horse for the rigors of running. The removal of damaged bone cells is quick, but Palmer said the creation of new, stronger bone is much slower. It’s not always clear to a trainer where a horse is in the development process, since horses may appear sound throughout.

By the time horses did get to the races last year, many ran fewer times overall than they would normally have in a calendar year, reducing the opportunities for their skeletons to respond to intense exercise before the next race.

Palmer also reported that in New York, the pandemic had a serious impact on the number of out-of-competition tests (OOCT) that could be administered. OOCTs typically happen with two regulatory staff getting in a car together to collect the needed samples; during COVID-19, that kind of travel couldn’t happen. It’s hard to say whether trainers were using more medication out of competition to patch horses through a busy summer and fall because they simply weren’t tested as much.

That’s why he wants you to get vaccinated – horses, trainers, and regulatory veterinarians can only return to their regular duties as COVID-19 rates continue to come down and developing herd immunity will contribute to that, he said.

The Mid-Atlantic region has generally improved its fatality numbers with time; when expressed as a rate per 1,000 starts, racing-related fatalities are down 43 percent from 2010 to 2020, which officials find encouraging. For the first part of the decade though, the Mid-Atlantic tracked higher than the national average rate. Those rates have become more similar in the past five years, and while the national data from the Equine Injury Database is not yet published for 2020, Palmer expects they will once again be very close. The racing fatality rate in the Mid-Atlantic for 2020 was 1.39 per 1,000 starts.

The way numbers are expressed makes a big difference in their specificity and their context for regulators, and Palmer said the public and the media do not always grasp the importance of this. For example, New York saw 24 fatalities from 14,895 racing starts last year, and 42 fatalities from timed workouts; that would make it seem as though working out is more dangerous than racing in New York, but leaves out the context that there were 49,073 official timed workout events. The state’s racing fatality rate was 1.6 per 1,000 starts, but its training fatality rate was 0.8 per 1,000 timed workouts. Expressing numbers as rates also makes it easy to compare data between years like 2019 and 2020 when the state had drastically different numbers of races.

The EID has yielded numerous reforms to improve racing safety, but Palmer said commissions need to begin focusing on making appropriate changes in the morning, too.

“We don’t regulate training in the same way we regulate racing,” Palmer pointed out.

Even in jurisdictions where there are regulatory veterinarians observing morning training, there may not be enough of them to visually cover all parts of a track, and it’s easy for a trainer to sneak a horse with questionable soundness through a different gap before the sun is up.

Video surveillance can help veterinarians pick up on problems (though, citing the case of Mongolian Groom ahead of the 2019 Breeders’ Cup, Palmer pointed out it’s only as good as the monitoring of that video).

Palmer believes regulators need a better idea of how much medication horses have on board for timed workouts; he pointed to California’s recently-updated rules prohibiting non-steroidal anti-inflammatories within 24 hours of a timed work and subjecting horses to post-work sampling to verify compliance. Even if a jurisdiction doesn’t have that rule, Palmer suggested random sampling as a fact-finding endeavor, as well as sampling any training fatalities.

Palmer also suggested that track maintenance become a priority in the mornings. He recently conducted a study of moisture levels at Belmont and found significant differences between the main and training track. During a drought, it’s difficult to keep New York’s sand-heavy track surfaces sufficiently watered in the afternoons, but the water trucks and harrows can make much more frequent passes over the surface than they can in the afternoon.

Data showed the main track surface at Belmont is considerably wetter than the training track surface.

“Is that good? Is that bad?” he said. “I have no idea … what I do know is we want to have a consistent surface for all horses and I’d submit to you that this is not as consistent as it needs to be.”

The final component for improved safety, according to Palmer’s recommendations: mandated continuing education for licensed trainers, to make sure those who might miss this story have all the information they need.

Currently, trainer CE will be required in Delaware, Maryland, New York, and Virginia in 2022. It will be a condition pending legislative approval next year in West Virginia, and is still “under consideration” in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

The post Palmer: Want To Make Racing Safer? Get Your COVID-19 Vaccine appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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