Injury study shows gender difference

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Colts and stallions were fatally injured at nearly twice the rate as female racehorses, according to early findings from an industrywide database that also uncovered no immediate proof that synthetic tracks are safer than dirt ones.

Tim Parkin, an epidemiologist at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, announced the findings Monday during the Jockey Club's third summit on racehorse welfare and safety. The study, which includes information from most racetracks in the United States and Canada, covers more than 86 percent of all flat-racing starts and all steeplechase races between Nov. 1, 2008, and Oct. 31, 2009.

The study showed colts were fatally injured at a rate of 3.18 times out of every 1,000 starts, with an even higher rate (4.06 per 1,000) for older male horses that hadn't been gelded. The rate was much lower for fillies (1.84 fatalities per 1,000 starts) and mares (1.66 per 1,000).

Parkin said he was reluctant to draw any conclusions about why male horses died at a much higher rate, but he acknowledged the sample size was large enough that the figures likely weren't a fluke.

The findings were similar to, though less dramatic than, studies done in other countries, he said. They don't necessarily mean male horses are more susceptible to injury merely because of their gender.

"Gender has come up looking like it's interesting at the beginning, then you put everything else in and it's no longer interesting," he said. "It actually explains something else."

Mary Scollay, Kentucky's equine medical director who helped launch the injury reporting database in 2007, said breeding decisions could be a factor. If female horses sustain even a minor injury on the track, their owners might decide to retire them as mothers, whereas it could be more lucrative to keep racing male horses unless they are high-end stallion prospects, Scollay said.

Although the racing industry has been looking at possible safety enhancements for years, it was the fatal breakdown of a female horse -- the filly Eight Belles after her second-place run in the 2008 Kentucky Derby -- that helped pressure some tracks into participating with the injury database and enacting other changes.

The results cast little light on one of the hottest debates in horse racing: whether injuries would drop dramatically if dirt tracks converted to a synthetic or rubberized surface, such as Keeneland's Polytrack.

Synthetic tracks did have the lowest fatality rate of any surface tested in the study, 1.78 fatal injuries for every 1,000 starts, but Parkin said it was impossible to draw any conclusions. Because there are far fewer races on synthetic surfaces than dirt, the fatality rate could have been as low as 1.47 per 1,000 or as high as 2.16 per 1,000, he said.

For dirt tracks, the fatality rate was 2.14 per 1,000, but the error range was smaller -- somewhere between 1.97 and 2.32. Turf tracks showed an injury rate of 1.78 deaths per 1,000 starts -- the same as synthetic tracks.

Most tracks are participating in the injury study on the condition that any information released is to identify trends across North America, not just identify some tracks as safer than others. Scollay said even the researchers aren't examining the data on a track-by-track basis.

"Clearly it would be interesting information, but when you start doing those comparisons you have a winner and a loser, and you create a disincentive for people to disclose information that could hurt them," Scollay said.

Also in the study, the youngest horses -- the 2-year-old juveniles -- had the lowest fatality rate, breaking down just 1.36 times every 1,000 starts. The highest rate was among 5-year-old horses (2.59 per 1,000), with a slightly lower rate for horses just older or younger than that.

The study found the distance of a race and the weight carried by a horse had a statistically insignificant effect on the injury rate.

According to a count by The Associated Press, racetracks in the United States reported more than 1,200 fatalities in 2007 and 2008. That indicates no significant drop in the fatal injury rate since the death of Eight Belles, although many of the safety changes were enacted several months later.

The two-day summit, which concludes Tuesday at the Keeneland sales pavilion, features discussions on various safety initiatives under way in the industry, including expanded drug testing, track surface testing and training procedures.

Much of the discussion during the afternoon focused on the influence of money in the sport. Trainer Jonathan Sheppard expressed concern that financial reasons sometimes trump health when it comes to decisions on racing and selling horses.

"If you want a horse nice and shiny and sleak, whether it breaks down when it becomes a 3-year-old doesn't really matter as long as the guy is going home with half a million (dollars) in his pocket," Sheppard said. "Trainers in general tend to be a little bit easier on horses than they were."

Many speakers stressed that no one change is likely to dramatically cut the number of horses that are fatally injured.

"If it was an easy problem to solve, we would have solved it already," said Ashley Hill, assistant professor of epidemiology at Colorado State University.