Project shows synthetics are safer

Horses running on dirt surfaces in 2011 at North American tracks suffered fatal injuries at nearly twice the rate of horses running on artificial surfaces, according to a Jockey Club project that tracks equine injuries. The Jockey Club, which released the information Thursday, said that racetracks representing 93 percent of the race days in North American are participating in the project.

The fatality rate for horses running on dirt surfaces was 2.07 per 1,000 starts for 2011, according to the data. Horses running on synthetic surfaces suffered catastrophic injuries at the rate of 1.09 per 1,000 starts. On turf, the rate was 1.53 per 1,000 starts.

Overall, the fatality rate was 1.88 per 1,000 starts, the Jockey Club said. In 2010, the rate was also 1.88 per 1,000 starts, while in 2009 the rate was 1.91 per 1,000 starts.

The Jockey Club had earlier reported higher rates for 2009 and 2010. However, the Jockey Club said that it had changed the reporting requirements for the data to reflect only horses that died within three days of suffering an injury, which served to reduce the rate.

The 2011 fatality rate for synthetic surfaces continues a decline in the fatality rate in that category. In 2009, the rate on artificial surfaces was 1.49. The rate declined to 1.21 in 2010, and then to 1.09 last year. The rate for dirt surfaces was 2.1 in 2009, 2.05 in 2010, and 2.07 in 2011.

In 2010, an epidemiologist examining the data said that the difference between the fatality rates on dirt surfaces and artificial surfaces was statistically significant.

The widening in the gap between the fatality rate on artificial surfaces and dirt surfaces is certain to reinvigorate a debate over the relative merits of the two surfaces. Supporters of artificial surfaces have claimed that they are far safer for racehorses due to lower degrees of concussion on a horse's lower joints. Critics, who have included horseplayers and some trainers, have said that well-maintained dirt surfaces are just as safe as artificial surfaces, and that the data does not reflect a higher rate of soft-tissue injuries suffered by horses running on artificial tracks.

The database project was launched late in 2008 in order to gather information on racehorse injuries in an attempt to identify risk factors while racing.