Ky. Looks At Creating Panel To Review Horse Deaths

Jun 7, 2013

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- For a sport steeped in the thrill of 1,000-pound thoroughbreds stampeding down the racetrack, there are inherent risks.

Those hazards occasionally turn into tragedy, so Kentucky horse-racing regulators are looking at creating an equine mortality review committee in the latest attempt to reduce horse deaths. The panel would dig into details about each horse leading up to its life-ending injury. Those closest to the ill-fated horse would be interviewed.

By examining the regimen for each horse, the industry might turn up ways to make training and racing safer. And perhaps avoid stomach-turning breakdowns that bedevil the sport, like the tragic death of the filly Eight Belles after the 2008 Kentucky Derby.

"I think it's good to collect the information thoughtfully ... and see if there was anything that can be done better next time to prevent or mitigate those injuries," said Mary Scollay, equine medical director for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. "It's not meant to be an inquisition."

The issue was discussed this week during a meeting of the racing commission's Safety and Welfare Committee.

Racing-related horse deaths in the Bluegrass State are entered into a national database, but Scollay thinks more can be done to delve into each fatality.

"Our veterinarians review the race video, but there is no sort of collective assessment of the incident," she said. "In terms of on a case-by-case basis, who knew what and when about a given horse, those questions haven't been asked. And that's probably what the panel would be good for."

Racing commission member Elizabeth Lavin predicted the proposal will come up again. If the safety committee approves it, the proposal would go to the full racing commission. Lavin, who heads the committee, said the review panel would contribute to improving horse safety.

"The more information you have about injuries or fatalities, you have an opportunity to improve the product," she said.

Similar reviews have taken hold in other racing states.

The New York Racing Association recently created an Equine Safety Review Board to delve into horse deaths during racing and training at the three tracks it operates - Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga. The review board was among safety steps taken following a New York task force investigation into an upswing in thoroughbred deaths at Aqueduct a couple of winters ago.

Penn National Race Course started a review program in 2010 that includes horse necropsies along with interviews of the trainers and others. The fatality rate dropped in the first two years after the reviews started at the track near Harrisburg, Pa., said track veterinarian Jerry Pack.

"It certainly has made trainers aware that we are concerned about catastrophic injuries," he said. "We approach this from an educational standpoint."

In Kentucky, Scollay said she anticipated the review panel would include racing commission members, plus representatives from tracks and horsemen's groups. At least one racing commission member wondered whether the scrutiny might unnerve some veterinarians or others. Scollay said it would depend on "how you ask the questions."

"If you approach them in a kind of accusatory manner, I wouldn't expect to get much information," she said.

But the conversations would be productive, she said, "If you approach them saying, `We're all trying to do better here, what can you tell us about this horse? Is there anything you wish you could have done differently, knowing what you know now?'"

In Kentucky, there were four race-related fatalities among horses between Jan. 1 and the end of May this year, Scollay said. That fatality figure is down 63 percent from the same period a year ago. In the past six years, race-related horse deaths in the state ranged from a high of 40 in 2007 to as low as 26 in more recent years.

All horses undergo a pre-race exam on race day - a longstanding policy in Kentucky. In the past year, the racing commission has expanded that monitoring. For example, after horses are entered to race, the commission's veterinarians review pre-race exams and exercise history on each animal to look for signs that a horse is at increased risk of injury.

In March, the Jockey Club released figures showing a 2012 fatal injury rate among racehorses of 1.92 for every 1,000 starts at racetracks in the United States and Canada. The fatality rate was 2 per 1,000 starts in 2009 and 1.88 in 2010 and 2011. The study included information from most tracks in both countries.

Turfway Park in northern Kentucky has been doing its own reviews of fatal breakdowns for several years, which include discussions with the horse's jockey and trainer as well as the veterinarian. But track president Chip Bach said he would welcome a review panel.

"There's not much you can do about horses that clip heels and ... a horse breaks its leg," he said. "But if you see horses maybe coming from a certain area or a certain trainer and they have a higher incidence of injury, it definitely gives you an avenue to further explore as to what's going on."

Veterinarian Foster Northrop, a horse racing commission member, suggested that a post-mortem review of a horse's death in Kentucky should go back at least a month.

Northrop said efforts to improve horse safety are "never ending," and the review panel would gather information that could help reduce breakdown rates.

Those fatalities are devastating for the sport, he said, but no amount of protection will make the stately animals completely invulnerable.

"Like somebody once said, you can wrap them in bubble wrap ... and every once in a while somebody's going to break their leg," he said.