A potentially catastrophic injury can occur any time a horse is racing or even running around a farm paddock.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The deaths of seven horses at the home of the Kentucky Derby have once again intensified the debate over the safety of horse racing.
Two of the deaths occurred as a result of race injuries on Derby day when more than 150,000 people blockaded Churchill Downs.
“Although each reported incident has been unique, it is important to note that no discernible pattern has been found in the injuries sustained,” the track said in a statement that called the incidents “unacceptable”.
In recent years, the industry has instituted a series of veterinary and pharmaceutical reforms, which have resulted in a decrease in the mortality rate.
Here’s a look at what horse racing is doing to try and prevent injuries and deaths.
How common are injuries and deaths?
The deaths at Churchill Downs have attracted more attention because they occurred in the week leading up to the Kentucky Derby.
There have been waves of deaths in recent years, most notably 30 in Santa Anita California in 2019. These have led to a series of safety reforms that have spread nationwide.
The protocol calls for an autopsy when a horse dies at the track and a review of contributing factors, vet records, and interviews with interested parties to learn the cause and what, if anything, could have been done to prevent it.
“It’s hard to explain and say it will happen from time to time,” said Mike Repole, co-owner of Forte, an early scratched Kentucky Derby favorite, “but the reality is, unfortunately, it will happen from time to time.”
California and New York have public databases that catalog equine injuries and fatalities; Kentucky doesn’t.
According to a database maintained by the Jockey Club, which oversees the breed registry for Thoroughbreds in the United States and Canada, more than 7,200 horses died in racing from 2009-21.
A potentially catastrophic injury can occur any time a horse is racing or even running around in a farm paddock. The spindly legs of large animals require a lot of concussive force.
Why are horses euthanized after a leg injury?
A leg injury in a horse can lead to complications as the other legs try to take the pressure of an animal weighing approximately 1,100 pounds. Leg bones not only break, they often shatter completely, making it extremely difficult to repair or return to their original shape.
Unlike humans who can be put to bed, horses are meant to spend most of their time on the move. The horses on the track are taken out of their stalls each day to race, do timed training, or simply do several laps around their stall. They are also washed and cared for.
In addition to being resistant to leg restraint, horses can develop pressure ulcers if they lie down for too long. Horses sleep standing up and don’t mind falling over due to a system of tendons and ligaments that allow them to lock down major leg joints. If a horse cannot move its legs, the animal’s blood circulation decreases. Being confined to one place for an extended period of time can affect a horse’s mental health as well.
Are there any therapeutic alternatives?
Costs for surgery or other treatments can be considerably high, although wealthy owners of expensive Thoroughbreds often go to great lengths to preserve their investment.
Even with treatment, a horse’s chances of making a full recovery may be slim. To spare the animal further pain and stress, it is usually euthanized.
What is racing doing to address injuries?
Whether it’s daily racing or the Triple Crown Series – Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont – the horses undergo multiple comprehensive veterinary examinations and observations to ensure their fitness to race.
Researchers at the University of Kentucky are working to identify a screening tool that can be used before competitions to identify horses at higher risk of injury. Funding for the study was provided by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission’s Equine Drug Research Council.
The research involves analyzing blood samples from racehorses – both injured and uninjured – at the racetrack nationwide to see if there are any changes in messenger RNA and if there is something that consistently differentiates horses that experience an injury. catastrophic, according to a 2021 article in Trainer magazine.
The Horseracing Safety and Integrity Act, the sport’s new national governing body, launched its on-track safety program last year. Its anti-doping and drug control rules will come into effect on May 22, giving the sport uniformity in post-competition and out-of-competition testing, decisions and sanctions. The new rules replace the patchwork system of standards across the 38 US racing states that can vary by track and location.
Who was Barbarian and why did it matter?
The colt won the 2006 Kentucky Derby and two weeks later had a horribly smashed leg in the Preakness, which ended his career.
He underwent surgery for three broken bones in and around the fetlock of his right rear leg. Two months later, Barbaro developed laminitis in his left hind foot. He underwent five more operations during an extended stay in a horse hospital. Laminitis is common in horses that shift weight to one foot for extended periods to relieve pressure on an injured foot.
Barbaro’s initial injury and subsequent health battle endeared him to the public, who sent get well cards to the hospital. Eventually his right leg healed, but he developed flatulence in both front feet. The vets and his owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, decided he could not be saved and in January 2007 he was put down.
His situation led the Jacksons to fund a chair in equine disease research at the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School, where the Barbarian Fund was also established to aid in the treatment and care of large animals. Undergraduate scholarships have been created for students studying veterinary medicine and equine research.