Reducing Horse Racing Fatalities: Where Do We Go From Here?

The occurrence of fatal injuries to horses in flat racing in North America has decreased by 23% since the inception of standardized injury reporting into the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database.

The declining trend in fatalities began in 2013, and achieved statistical significance by 2015. This reduction, we believe, can be attributed to meaningful change within the culture of horse racing as expressed in multiple safety initiatives.

In Kentucky, this change has manifested not only as a decrease in racing fatalities, but also decreases in regulatory veterinarian-initiated scratches for unsoundness and the number of horses observed to be unsound post-race.

These findings are evidence that the overall health of the racing population has improved. Multiple safety initiatives have been implemented and credited for contributing to the improved safety record. Examples include:

  • Constraints on traction devices on horse shoes;
  • Changes to therapeutic medication regulations;
  • Systematic and objective racing surface monitoring and management;
  • Implementation of “voided claim” regulations;
  • The National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s Safety and Integrity Alliance accreditation of racetracks;
  • Necropsy programs and mortality review panels;
  • Employment of safety stewards; and
  • The adoption of an Association of Racing Commissioners’ Model Rule on the veterinarians’ list

Others assert that the decreased occurrence in fatalities is an expression of the Hawthorne Effect, in which there is an improved outcome as a consequence of a population’s awareness of being observed. This is perhaps not so rewarding as the idea that the combined effort of the entire spectrum of racing stakeholders made it a safer sport. But at the end of the day, either way, we’ll take it. The 23% reduction in racing fatalities is not an abstraction. Hundreds of horses did not die that, in the past, might well have.

The important message is that the occurrence of racing fatalities is not immutable. This should serve both as encouragement and warning. Encouragement in that positive change is possible, and so efforts to improve safety should, and must, continue. There is additional work to be done through investigating biomarkers of early onset orthopedic disease, improving decision making at all levels that further safeguards the long-term health of the horse during and after its racing career, identifying business models that incentivize human and equine health and safety, and developing relevant and engaging continuing education programs for all those in contact with race horses.

And the warning? Change can also be negative. Complacency, the assertion of a mission accomplished, puts horses and their riders as well as the sport as a whole at risk, should racing fatalities be allowed to increase as a consequence of inertia and a loss of vigilance. The occurrence of racing fatalities in North America continues to exceed that experienced elsewhere in the world.

Until North America can legitimately be acknowledged as a leader in protecting the health, safety, and welfare of racehorses and those who ride or drive them, our work is far from done.

CONTACT—Mary Scollay, DVM——859/246-2040—Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, Lexington, Kentucky

This is an excerpt from Equine Disease Quarterly, funded by underwriters at Lloyd’s, London.