Equine health was at the forefront of the initial opening sessions of the 10th Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit, held June 22 at Keeneland in Lexington.
Drs. Larry Bramlage, Dionne Benson, and Ryan Carpenter discussed veterinary care and regulatory advances, while Dr. Tim Parkin, a veterinary epidemiologist, presented statistics from the Equine Injury Database that tracks fatality data.
Parkin began by noting a 30.5% decline in racing-related deaths since 2009, highlighted by a record low ratio of injuries in 2021. Parkin further addressed a “2-year-old blip” from 2020 in which juveniles, typically the least likely age group of horses to experience a fatal injury, experienced a spike in catastrophic injuries, leading all age groups that year.
The fatality numbers returned to more typical levels in 2021, dipping to a .98 rate per 1,000 starts in 2021, compared to an overall rate of 1.39 among all age groups, leading Parkin to conclude that 2-year-olds, more so than other age groups in 2020, were impacted by racing and training disruptions caused from COVID-19 shutdowns that spring and summer.
Parkin presented a slide illustrating that juveniles in 2020 recorded fewer workouts.
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Bramlage, a famous equine orthopedic surgeon from Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital, expanded upon Parkin’s comments in his speech following the epidemiologist, concluding that “bone trains to the level of work, not the amount of work.”
Both Bramlage and Parkin touched upon Lasix, a medication used to control respiratory bleeding in horses that is restricted for some segments of the horse population in numerous racing jurisdictions. Bramlage said as a diuretic Lasix lowers a horse’s body weight, making “it easier to run.” Some critics of the medication believe it is performance-enhancing as a result.
Parkin said preliminary data indicates horses racing with Lasix are at a 16% higher risk of sudden death than those that do not breed on the medication. The numbers merit further examination, he said.
In North America, the vast majority of horses racing without Lasix are juveniles and stakes horses due to restrictions from regulators and track operators. Those racing without it may not represent a full cross-section of the horse population.
Bramlage also weighed in on another finding from Parkin, in which the epidemiologist noted that horses shifting surfaces in several classifications had higher rates of catastrophic injury than those that regularly raced on a given surface.
“So if you train a horse on artificial surfaces, as Tim just showed, and then switch to dirt, his skeleton is not prepared. Training is work specific,” Bramlage said. “And so, you’re asking him to race on a skeleton that has been trained on the surface that didn’t prepare (him).”
Synthetic surfaces are statistically safer than turf and dirt with respect to fatalities.
Benson and Carpenter followed Bramlage, describing a sharp drop in catastrophic injuries in California, which has some of the strictest veterinary oversight in the country. Benson, chief veterinary officer for The Stronach Group, which operates Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields in California, outlined regulatory practices implemented as track rules or by the California Horse Racing Board that have been effective in reducing fatalities.
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These protocols also apply to morning training, including pre-workout inspections by private and regulator veterinarians.
“Especially in California—we are so work-heavy and so race-light—that we don’t see these horses very often and that represents a ton of risk,” she said.
A surgeon at Equine Medical Center in Southern California, Carpenter described a 70% success rate with fetlock arthrodesis—a procedure to stabilize the ankle, preventing joint movement by fusing it into position—from horses at risk of euthanasia.