Euthanasia at Kentucky Derby renews attention to safety

Injuries also beset horses and riders competing in the Olympic sport of eventing
Published on June 01, 2008
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The dramatic breakdown and subsequent euthanasia of Eight Belles, the filly who placed second in the Kentucky Derby, has shone a spotlight again on the safety issues of horse racing.

At the same time, fatal and nonfatal injuries have occurred among horses and riders participating in the Olympic sport of eventing—a three-day competition consisting of dressage, cross-country jumping, and show jumping.

Eight Belles down
Track personnel try to hold down Eight Belles after the Kentucky Derby. The filly collapsed after placing second, and her injuries were so severe that euthanasia was the only option.

For horse racing and eventing, veterinarians are among the experts proposing and implementing safety improvements. 

Eight Belles

No one knows exactly what caused Eight Belles to collapse. The filly broke down about a quarter of a mile after she passed the finish line at Churchill Downs. 

"She had displaced condylar fractures in both forelimbs, with additional fractures of one or both sesamoids," said Dr. Larry Bramlage, who provided veterinary expertise during the Kentucky Derby as part of the American Association of Equine Practitioners' On Call program.

Dr. Bramlage, a past president of the AAEP, explained to the press that euthanasia was the only option. He later said that the On Call program, which arranges for veterinarians to assist with live coverage of horse races, was helpful in this event.

"We were prepared and able to relay the medical information to the viewing audience in a matter of minutes," said Dr. Bramlage, an orthopedic surgeon and partner at the Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Ky.

Dr. Bramlage would not speculate as to whether any safety improvements could have prevented Eight Belles' breakdown. The press conjectured that breeding racehorses for speed rather than sturdiness contributed to the filly's collapse. In the meantime, organizations that promote animal rights or animal welfare seized the opportunity to propose reforms in horse racing.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called for a ban on whipping horses. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals objected to the use of analgesic drugs because of the possibility that horses could then race despite injuries. Both organizations suggested that dirt racetracks, such as the track at Churchill Downs, are not as safe as synthetic surfaces.

"Their criticisms do serve to keep us focused on the welfare of the racehorse and serve as a barometer of the public perception of the issues," Dr. Bramlage responded. "What they don't do is recognize that the equine athletes are the most highly cared for and looked after of all of the equine species." 

Horse racing

Within a week of the Kentucky Derby, the Jockey Club announced the formation of a Thoroughbred Safety Committee—with Dr. Bramlage as one of the seven members. The committee will review breeding practices, medication, the rules of racing, and track surfaces before advising industry on actions to improve equine health and safety. 

Recommendations from two summits on the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse will serve as starting points for the committee. The Jockey Club and Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation coordinated and underwrote the summits in October 2006 and March 2008.

A couple of the key recommendations from the first summit were to develop statistics on the durability and longevity of the progeny of breeding stock and to develop a standard method for reporting on-track injuries.

In September 2007, the research foundation published charts online at regarding the durability of bloodlines in terms of percentage of a stallion's offspring that race at least once and lifetime average number of starts per starter by a sire. The hope is that breeders might find the figures useful or thought provoking.

Also in 2007, almost three dozen racetracks adopted an injury reporting system that Dr. Mary Scollay developed after the first safety summit. Dr. Scollay, who has been track veterinarian for Florida's Calder Race Course and Gulfstream Park, expects about 60 racetracks to participate this year. The system is collecting data that will be the basis for a number of statistics, including fatality rates for racehorses on synthetic surfaces versus dirt tracks.

"Support for the system has been overwhelming from all facets of the industry," Dr. Scollay said. "It's just been amazing, the buy-in we've gotten."

The system gathers data after fatal and nonfatal injuries on the horse's racing and training history, race distance, rider experience, surface conditions, track configuration, and other variables. Dr. Scollay doesn't expect the system to be a source of meaningful injury statistics until at least the end of the year.

"It will be a tremendous resource in the future, and it's just going to take a while to get the foundation of data," Dr. Scollay said.

The sport of eventing 

Safety concerns for equine and human athletes also have come to the forefront for U.S. participants in the sport of eventing as the 2008 Olympics approach. 

In March, a rider who represented the United States in eventing during the 2004 Olympics sustained severe injuries after a fall at a Florida competition. In April, the New York Times reported that a dozen riders had died in the sport worldwide in the previous year and a half. At the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event later in April, falls led to serious injuries for one potential U.S. Olympic rider and the euthanasia of two horses.

David O'Connor, president of the United States Equestrian Federation, and Kevin Baumgardner, president of the United States Eventing Association, responded to these incidents with a letter to the equestrian community.

"Although we have implemented several measures to improve safety over the last year, clearly more needs to be done," O'Connor and Baumgardner wrote. "In the coming days and weeks, we will be redoubling our efforts to identify additional steps we can take to make sure that riders and horses can compete as safely as possible."

The letter invited equestrians to attend a USEF/USEA Safety Summit on eventing in early June. At press time, organizers were planning to explore the following topics:

  • Horse and rider qualifications—professional/amateur qualifications, international/national qualifications, loss or downgrading of qualifications

  • Course design—designing jumps to break apart on impact, prevention of rotational falls, optimal speeds, course distances, course formats

  • Education—riders' and instructors' responsibilities, officials' responsibilities, handling dangerous riding, instructor certification

  • Veterinary and human medical issues—horse conditioning, prevention of horse and rider injury, rider fitness, concussion management

Information about the USEF/USEA Safety Summit is available at