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February 01, 2020

Once more around the track

Racetrack-led coalition created to address horse racing deaths, safety concerns
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A cluster of horse racing deaths in 2019 has led to increased calls for safety-related reforms and standardization in the industry.

Conversations among racetrack organizations, horse owners, the public, and equine veterinarians across the U.S. led to the creation of the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition as well as other efforts such as the Horse Integrity Act introduced in Congress.

The coalition comprises six racetrack organizations: The Breeders’ Cup, Churchill Downs, the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, Keeneland, the New York Racing Association, and The Stronach Group. The TSC, which launched Nov. 19, 2019, aims to make operational, medical, and organizational changes to the racing industry.

2018 Breeder's Cup Classic race in progress
The Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2018 (Courtesy of Churchill Downs)

“As doctors of veterinary medicine, the AAEP (American Association of Equine Practitioners) commends the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition for its wide-ranging initiatives to ensure the safety of the sport’s equine and human athletes,” said 2019 AAEP President Dr. Jeff Berk in a statement. “Everyone in the horse racing industry shares responsibility for safety, from veterinarians and trainers to breeders, owners, racetracks and state regulators. The focused and collaborative effort of the coalition promises meaningful safety reforms in the years ahead.”

The AVMA endorses the AAEP policy on therapeutic medications in racehorses, which includes a recommendation that all racing jurisdictions adopt the uniform medication guidelines set forth by the Racing and Medication Testing Consortium Inc. The AVMA and AAEP work closely on horse racing and other issues. Read the full policy.

The coalition has proposed some of the following reforms:

  • Increase the withdrawal time for nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to 48 hours before a race.
  • Prohibit concurrent use of multiple NSAIDs.
  • Mandate direct daily reporting by veterinarians to regulatory officials.
  • Perform random, out-of-competition testing on horses without limitation.
  • Create an electronic veterinary reporting system and a centralized database.
  • Collect racing surface data, and merge information with existing databases.

Dr. William Farmer, equine medical director of Churchill Downs, said the creation of the coalition is a big milestone.

“Track management and track owners are coming together to help push this through, which is something very different,” he said. “Traditionally, it has been regulators trying to push medication reform, not the tracks themselves.”

Thoroughbred Safety Coalition's proposed three-tier plan
The Thoroughbred Safety Coalition is proposing a three-tier plan to reform the horse racing industry. (Courtesy of the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition)

Dr. Farmer, who is also a racetrack veterinarian, worked with the coalition on its medical reforms while he was under contract with the Breeders’ Cup.

This season

Dr. Stuart E. Brown II, a partner at Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington, Kentucky, said there has always been an emphasis on the need to control the atmosphere on the racetrack for the safety of horses and riders.

“A lot of effort goes into making sure, especially from an integrity standpoint, that we make the sport as safe as possible,” he said. “We never want to take a horse death lightly.”

According to data from the Equine Injury Registry, which is maintained by the Jockey Club, the number of fatalities per 1,000 starts has decreased in the last 10 years (see chart). But despite the overall decrease, the recent cluster of injuries has led to questions about safety.

The Equine Injury Registry isn’t expected to release official numbers on fatalities per starts for 2019 until this spring. According to media reports, however, there were more than 400 racing-related deaths of horses across the U.S. in 2019. 

Specifically, Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California, saw 40 deaths, including one during the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The majority of the fatalities at Santa Anita, a track operated by The Stronach Group, have been attributed to the weather in California. The state received an abnormally large amount of rain in early 2019. 

In December, Santa Anita installed a positron emission tomography scanner to support diagnosis of preexisting conditions in horses that could contribute to breakdowns. It is the first to be installed in a horse racing facility. 
An official report from the California Horse Racing Board about the deaths at Santa Anita had yet to be released at press time in late December.

Racing history

Dr. Farmer said the industry is united in its goal to make the sport safer, more open, and more transparent.

“We have made a lot of changes, we still have a lot to make, and we are actively making them, in all tenses of the word—past, present, and future,” he said. 

Horse racing dates back as far as 1665 in the U.S. and Canada, said Dr. Kathleen Anderson, AAEP past president. Historically, horse racing was seen as a local or state event, but it evolved into a national and international sport as transportation improved. Technology, more recently, has also changed the way the public can interact with the sport.

“In an age where the individual matters, horse racing injuries have found increased scrutiny from a populace that sees the sport through a different lens,” Dr. Anderson said. “To address this, the racing industry has sought to improve the oversight of the sport. The implemented policies vary from state to state and from track to track, thus the conundrum we face with how to achieve uniformity of regulation and safety within the budgets of a wide spectrum of racing venues and racing ownership.”

Charts: Equine injury statistics by age and year
Statistics by age and year from the Equine Injury Database (Courtesy of the Jockey Club)

An earlier effort for self-regulation within horse racing came in 2013 from the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, the industry’s scientific advisory organization, and the Association of Racing Commissioners International, the association of state racing regulators, which develops model rules it encourages its members to adopt. The hope was for pari-mutuel regulators for the 38 U.S. horse racing commissions to adopt these uniform national reforms involving medication regulation and enforcement. Now known as the National Uniform Medication Progress, it introduced a controlled therapeutic medication list, the Multiple Medication Violations Penalty System, restrictions on the use and administration of furosemide, and the RMTC code of laboratory accreditation and minimum standards. Adoption by states hasn’t been consistent. A map showing the states that have adopted the four facets of the NUMP can be found at the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association website.

Race-day administration of medications is a key topic in horse racing safety conversations. 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.

Reforms and regulations

Dr. Kathleen Anderson during a press conference
Dr. Kathleen Anderson, past president of the American Association for Equine Practitioners, during a press conference announcing the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition (Courtesy of Keeneland)

Meanwhile, others in and out of the horse racing industry have proposed their preferred changes to the sport.

The Horseracing Integrity Act (HR 1754) was introduced in the 116th Congress. The legislation would establish the Horseracing Anti-Doping and Medication Control Authority as an independent, private, nonprofit organization that would develop and administer a program for Thoroughbred, Standardbred, and Quarter Horse racing. The Federal Trade Commission would have oversight. Similar bills have been introduced in previous Congresses over the past decade, but none have passed.

The Jockey Club, the Coalition for Horse Racing Integrity, and others have come out in support of this most recent iteration of the bill.

“The Jockey Club believes that horses should race only when free from the effects of medication, and the Horseracing Integrity Act would achieve that goal,” said Shannon Luce, the director of communications at The Jockey Club. “We can significantly improve equine health and reduce fatalities, but to do so, we need one set of anti-doping and medication rules across the country, a system that the Horseracing Integrity Act will create.”

Another recent effort is the 2019 Mid-Atlantic Strategic Plan to Reduce Equine Fatalities. It is the result of a collaboration among racing jurisdiction stakeholders in the mid-Atlantic region. They have produced a strategic plan with five defined goals that could serve as a template for other jurisdictions going forward. The goals include developing regional safety best practices, increasing awareness and understanding of conditions associated with injury, and developing improved methods to identify horses at increased risk of injury.

States have also started making their own reforms. 

The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and racetracks in the state adopted new medication rules in December intended to reduce the use of pre-race medication. The plan would also eliminate race-day use of furosemide in 2-year-old horses. As of late December, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear had not approved the proposal.

The California Horse Racing Board also approved a series of reforms to be presented to Gov. Gavin Newsom in December.

Dr. Gregory Ferraro, the new CHRB chairman, said in a board meeting in November that there will be changes under his leadership.
“The days of permissive medication are over,” he said during the meeting. “We will gradually eliminate medications and keep them away from racing and training.”

Dr. Anderson said that the loss of any horse in competition is of great concern to the racing industry and equine veterinarians.

“The visionary goal is zero catastrophic injuries, hence the reforms that move us closer to the goal. Both the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition and the Horseracing Integrity Act are tackling this from different camps but using the same bottom line: Uniformity is paramount. It is the key to national safety and the general welfare of the horses.”


Get updates from the Thoroughbred Racing Coalition.