The number of starts per year and number of years raced in the careers of Thoroughbred racehorses have declined over the past 50 years. To investigate reasons for the trend, more than 35 industry professionals, including several veterinarians, gathered at the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit in October to develop an action plan to improve the well-being and safety of racehorses.
The recommendations coming from the summit were especially timely considering at least two racetracks have reportedly experienced an unusual increase in the number of breakdowns this past summer.
The Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation and The Jockey Club coordinated and underwrote the event. Grayson-Jockey is one of the nation's leading private sources of equine research funding, and The Jockey Club is the breed registry for Thoroughbred horses in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico. The event was hosted in Lexington, Ky., by Keeneland Association Inc., which runs a Thoroughbred racecourse and sales company.
Dr. Larry Bramlage, spokesperson for the American Association of Equine Practitioners' On Call Program, gave a presentation at the summit on the decline in the number of starts of Thoroughbred racehorses. "We established the changes are multifactorial," he said.
On one hand, he said, "We raise four times as many horses as in 1950. The number of races available has changed little, and the number of starters has changed little, so the starts per horse have to go down."
Another factor affects the racing careers, he said, "The horses appear to be less durable. But this is speculative. Facts need to be set out to determine the role of our breeding choices, which we will work on."
Some key recommendations that participants made during the two-day summit were to research, develop, and publish additional statistics about the durability and longevity of progeny of breeding stock; distribute scientific research more widely among industry stakeholders; develop a standard method for reporting the nature of on-track injuries—both equine and human; and provide more continuing education programs for farriers, exercise riders, and others.
Participants also recommended the examination of use or ban of certain types of horseshoes, such as forelimb horseshoes with toe grabs that are more than 4 mm high.
In a postmortem study of racehorses (see AJVR, August 1996, pages 1147-1152), horses that had regular-height toe grabs were 3.5 times as likely to suffer a fatal musculoskeletal injury and 16 times as likely to suffer a suspensory apparatus failure than horses that were not wearing toe grabs, according to participant Dr. Susan Stover, a professor at the J.D. Wheat Veterinary Orthopedic Research Laboratory at the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.
Since the risks were first reported, some industry professionals have voluntarily reduced the use of high toe grabs. Dr. Stover said remaining reticence for discontinuing use of high toe grabs is associated with the perceived need to enhance traction between the horse's hoof and the racetrack surface. Because there are other alternatives to enhancing traction without elevating the toe, such as the rim shoe, she said, at least one state horse racing board is considering implementing a regulation that prohibits 4 mm or higher toe grabs from being worn on the front shoes of Thoroughbred horses while racing.
"I think the time is about right; I think the industry is probably going to move forward with eliminating the 4-millimeter-high toe grabs," Dr. Stover said.
Educating the industry
Ed Bowen, president of the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, said plans for the summit began in early 2005 when the foundation had open discussions with various industry professionals to determine what important avenues of equine research to pursue.
"One concern I had was that we would create the impression we were (at the summit) to try somehow to increase the number of races the average Thoroughbred contests," Bowen said. "In fact, of course, the nexus of the summit was recognition that the breed is unable to race as much as in the past because of an apparent trend toward less soundness, and thereby to try to improve the horses' collective soundness and health."
When asked how the recommendations might affect veterinarians, Bowen said, "One of the goals is to enhance the process of knowledge going from the scientist to the end user, especially the trainer. If this is successful, veterinarians will have a more knowledgeable clientele; one would hope this facilitates improved regimens."
"Also, if the national injury reporting effort comes to fruition, veterinarians will benefit from the ... knowledge of what the most frequent problems are," he said, "which will result in increased emphasis on research to deal with those problems."
Bowen noted that the energy level among participants was high, and that various groups were forming to pursue specific goals.
At press time, Grayson-Jockey was working on compiling a final report from the summit, some of which will be published in the foundation's newsletter, titled Research Today, by the end of the year.