Recent deaths charge up horse racing safety conversation

Published on April 24, 2019

Twenty-three racehorses died between Dec. 26 and March 31 at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California.

The deaths led to about three weeks of closure in March at the track, which has dirt and turf surfaces, and a policy change on race-day medication at Santa Anita. The recent deaths have also sparked conversations across the horse racing industry about racetrack surfaces, race-day medication, and overall horse safety.

"If you had a perfect horse out there, then the track issues won't matter, but if there is an issue with the horse and you get a variation on the track, then there is a risk. My focus is the track, but it is just one piece of the puzzle," said Mick Peterson, PhD, director of Ag Equine Programs at the University of Kentucky and executive director of the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory.

Santa Anita Park dirt track
Tractors ready the main dirt track for testing at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California. (Courtesy of Santa Anita Park)

The laboratory uses its Maintenance Quality System to evaluate 12 tracks twice a year. Santa Anita was tested in October 2018 and then retested in March after the injuries on the track. The test results matched the baseline data. However, Dr. Peterson noted that California has been receiving a large amount of rainfall.

In early March, the United States Drought Monitor removed most of California from a drought labeling.

"Our concern when there has been unusual rain is that the fine material in the top layer is reduced, and the track will get sandier and deeper," Dr. Peterson said. "If the industry wants to survive and grow, they have to get this under control."

He added that more data on the changes track surfaces experience throughout the day are needed so trainers and superintendents can have more information when making decisions.

Among the layered issues around horse racing is the administration of race-day medication. Furosemide is the only medication that can be given on race day and is used to treat exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage. Although furosemide is widely used in the U.S., most countries have prohibited its use on race day because of its role as a potential performance enhancer.

The Stronach Group, owner of Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields, and the Thoroughbred Owners of California made an agreement with the California Horse Racing Board to eliminate the use of furosemide beginning with next year's 2-year-olds and immediately reduce race-day administration of the diuretic by 50 percent, among other policy changes, according to a March 16 press release from The Stronach Group.

"We appreciate the willingness of Belinda Stronach of TSG and Jim Cassidy (President of California Thoroughbred Trainers) to negotiate in good faith and reach today's agreement," said Greg Avioli, president and CEO of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, in the press release. "I am confident we all share the same goal of making California racing safer and doing everything we can to provide additional safety and protection for our horses."

Santa Anita reopened March 29, only for another racehorse to die at the track March 31.

The Jockey Club has been gathering data from racetracks since 2009. The organization released an updated version of its Equine Injury Database in March.

"Analysis of the EID has demonstrated that there are a multitude of factors that contribute to the risk of fatal injuries in Thoroughbred racehorses," said Dr. Tim Parkin, professor of veterinary epidemiology at the University of Glasgow and consultant to the EID, in a March 22 press release from The Jockey Club.

Supplemental table of equine injury database statistics for Thoroughbreds (Jan 1 – Dec 31) - Source: Equine Injury Database from The Jockey Club


The data show that the aggregated rate of fatal injury was 1.68 per 1,000 starts in 2018, compared with the 2009 rate of 2.00 per 1,000 starts, according to the press release.

There were 493 fatal injuries in 2018. Of those injuries, 394 were on dirt, 65 on turf, and 34 on a synthetic surface. The number of total fatalities per year has decreased since 2009 by 16 percent.

A list of EID participating tracks can be found at The Jockey Club website.

"Moving forward, we should focus on the medications present in horses during racing and training, transparency of veterinary records for all starters and the collection of injury data from morning training hours," Dr. Parkin said in the press release.

Related JAVMA content:

Racetrack surfaces just one factor in horse racing fatalities (March 1, 2011)

Data emerging on racetrack injuries (May 15, 2010)