Tue, 09/12/2023 - 11:22

HISA will form committee to determine if more artificial surfaces would lower equine fatalities

Barbara D. Livingston
The HISA committee charged with reducing racetrack fatalities will be led by the New York Racing Association, the operator of Saratoga, which had several high-profile breakdowns at its recently completed meet.

The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority will establish a committee to evaluate the feasibility of installing more artificial surfaces at racetracks across the U.S., HISA announced on Tuesday as part of a laundry list of goals associated with an effort to reduce racetrack fatalities.

The committee, which will be led by the New York Racing Association, will “evaluate the potential incorporation of synthetic surfaces at America’s premier Thoroughbred racetracks,” HISA said in a release. Currently, nearly every major racetrack, including all three Triple Crown tracks, races primarily on dirt and turf.

“Current available data suggests that artificial surfaces may be safer for horses than dirt or turf surfaces,” HISA said. “While additional research and analysis is necessary to fully evaluate the potential impact of artificial surfaces on overall equine injury rates, more synthetic options should be introduced into Thoroughbred racing.”

Artificial surfaces are controversial in U.S. racing among horsemen, bettors, and breeders. Data collected since 2009 has consistently shown that horses suffer catastrophic injuries at far lower rates on synthetic surfaces when compared to dirt, but some horsemen contend that horses suffer more soft-tissue injuries on artificial surfaces.

Artificial surfaces were far more common at major racetracks 15 years ago, when the California Horse Racing Board mandated the installation of the tracks in the state and Keeneland Racecourse in Lexington, Ky., replaced its dirt track with a synthetic surface.

Support waned for the surfaces on major racetracks within a few years, however, and the CHRB rescinded its rule, while Keeneland went back to a dirt course after eight years of racing on the artificial track, citing dissatisfaction from horsemen.

The recommendation to take a closer look at artificial surfaces grew out of a summer-long review by HISA of recent racing fatalities at Churchill Downs and Saratoga that have disturbed even long-time supporters of the sport. In the spring, a dozen horses died at Churchill while racing and training, leading the track to move the remainder of its meet to Ellis Park in June. At Saratoga this year, a spate of fatalities, including two that occurred in deep stretch on the dirt course in stakes races, cast a pall on what is normally a summer-long festival atmosphere in upstate New York.

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Following the Saratoga meet, the chief executive officer of NYRA said that the company needed to seriously consider whether its dirt surfaces should be replaced by artificial surfaces.

The announcement of recommendations was released concurrently with a report analyzing the Churchill fatalities in which HISA’s chief executive officer, Lisa Lazarus, said that investigators were unable to find a “smoking gun” underlying the deaths, which occurred in a variety of circumstances, including two sudden deaths on the racetrack and a traumatic paddock injury.

“That doesn’t mean we didn’t learn a lot from the investigation, because we did,” Lazarus said.

The report detailed efforts by HISA and Churchill Downs to evaluate its racing surfaces for any deficiencies or abnormalities, and it included an analysis of the necropsy reports for the Churchill deaths.

Dr. Sue Stover, the chair of HISA’s Racetrack Safety Committee, who has extensive experience in researching musculoskeletal injuries, said that two of the factors to emerge from the analysis were that the horses who died had more races per year in their careers and more days between their last high-speed exercise and the dates of their races, when compared to a control group with similar career racing attributes.

“Certainly the data from the Churchill review indicates that that needs to be reviewed further,” Stover said.

The report also said that HISA has not been “consistently and reliably” receiving fatality notices, injury reports, or necropsy reports from a number of states, including Kentucky, as required by its rules. It also recommended that Kentucky expand its current rule requiring necropsies of all racing fatalities to include training fatalities as well.

In the announcement of the new protocols, HISA said that one of its tasks will be to double-down on data-analysis efforts that would seek to find additional risk factors for catastrophic injuries. Since 2009, the racing industry has attempted to identify significant risk factors for injuries through epidemiological analyses of data collected in the Equine Injury Database, an effort that has led to dozens of new protocols. The equine fatality rate at U.S. tracks has declined 35 percent since the launch of the database.

“At this point in horse racing’s evolution, the sport needs to take a broad view of both causes and solutions of equine injury and it is incumbent upon HISA and industry leaders to explore whether any of these theories are supported by data,” HISA said. “To that end, HISA will collaborate with industry stakeholders, including Churchill Downs, to create new data sources, repositories, and processes needed to do academic level research and predictive analytics.”

The release listed 12 questions that HISA would seek to resolve through the data-analysis effort, including whether there is a correlation between rainfall at a meet and catastrophic injuries, and whether horses should be limited in the amount of “high-speed furlongs” they perform over a certain time period. Lazarus said that the analytics would receive a “third-party, independent review.”

HISA also said that it would study whether it was feasible to make PET scanning machines available to more tracks. PET scans have been described by supporters as being critical to evaluating bone-remodeling changes that can indicate whether a horse is at risk of a serious musculoskeletal injury. The machines can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. 1/ST Racing, the racetrack operating company, has installed one at Santa Anita.

Stover called the PET scanning machines a “game-changer” when coupled with other diagnostic tools and veterinary examinations.

HISA will also review the effectiveness of certain “wearable technologies” and “equine fitness tools” that have been introduced to racing over the past several years, including those that collect data on a horse’s stride. The fitness tools include swimming pools and treadmills.

Lazarus said that HISA did not anticipate passing rules requiring the technologies if they proved effective in identifying at-risk horses, but she said that HISA would “work in partnership with these companies to share data and maximize the data that these devices can give us.”

Other action items include:

* Initiating discussions with sales companies about “whether the industry would be better served if anti-doping and medication control protocols were consistent throughout the lifetime of a horse.” HISA said in its release that it has started those discussions with the country’s leading sale companies, “toward the goal of entering into voluntary agreements.”

HISA’s enabling legislation does not grant the authority jurisdiction over horses and their caretakers until the horse performs in a workout or race at a licensed facility.

* The proposal of a new rule that would require a 30-day “stand-down” before racing and a 14-day stand-down before training after a horse receives a corticosteroid injection into a fetlock. HISA said that approximately 50 percent of all fatalities are attributable to a fetlock injury.

Any proposed rule by HISA must be posted for public comment before approval by the Federal Trade Commission. An identical rule has been in place in California for several years.

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* The proposal of a rule that would allow HISA to “issue a show cause notice concerning the provisional suspension of a racetrack’s accreditation if HISA has reasonable grounds to believe that the conditions or operations of a racetrack present an imminent danger to the health, safety, or welfare” of horses and licensees. A separate rule would allow HISA to issue the same notice to an individual licensee under the same grounds.

Lazarus stressed that HISA does not currently have the power to “shut a racetrack down.” The enabling legislation grants HISA the power to stop a track from running “covered races,” which would prevent a track from sending its signal across state lines for wagering purposes.

In its release, HISA said that the proposals were necessary for the sport to retain its social license, in an environment in which animal-welfare concerns have become increasingly relevant to wider swaths of the population.

“Horse racing has reached an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ moment requiring more than ever a truly unified effort for the horses,” HISA said. “All stakeholder groups must participate in bringing the appropriate recommendations to fruition and being part of the solution.”

Lazarus said that the racing industry needed to coalesce behind strategies to minimize fatalities.

“If we don’t work together, our industry is in jeopardy,” she said.

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