Santa Anita Racehorse Breakdowns: Thinking Beyond the Track Surface

Aside from footing, a number of factors could be contributing to catastrophic injuries. What would it take to definitively pinpoint a cause? Dr. Peta Lee Hitchens, who has an interest in the epidemiology of racehorse breakdowns, explains.

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Santa Anita Racehorse Breakdowns
Santa Anita Park's management has established a variety of initiatives for racing and training at the track aimed at improving horse safety and welfare. | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Twenty-two Thoroughbred racehorses have died or been euthanized at Santa Anita Park, in Arcadia, California, during its current race meet due to injuries sustained while racing and training. The Stronach Group, which owns the track, has closed the venue to both live racing and training multiple times, most recently on March 14 after the 22nd fatality. The Stronach Group has also established a variety of initiatives for racing and training at the track and plans to reopen on March 29.

So far investigation has reportedly been largely aimed at the track surface, with repeated checks finding that the footing is consistent. We at The Horse wanted to give the reader a look at this issue through a different lens: epidemiology, which the Centers for Disease Control defines as a “method used to find the causes of health outcomes and disease in populations … (where) the patient is the community and individuals are viewed collectively.”

If we were to look beyond the racetrack surface, what would it take to definitively pinpoint a cause? We spoke with Peta Lee Hitchens, PhD, a research fellow in the University of Melbourne’s Equine Orthopaedic Research Group, in Victoria, Australia, led by Professor Chris Whitton (BVSc, PhD, FACVSc), with an interest in the epidemiology of racehorse breakdowns. Hitchens isn’t involved in the Santa Anita investigation but is able to offer insight into how epidemiologists approach racetrack breakdowns

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Written by:

Stephanie L. Church, Editorial Director, grew up riding and caring for her family’s horses in Central Virginia and received a B.A. in journalism and equestrian studies from Averett University. She joined The Horse in 1999 and has led the editorial team since 2010. A 4-H and Pony Club graduate, she enjoys dressage, eventing, and trail riding with her former graded-stakes-winning Thoroughbred gelding, It Happened Again (“Happy”). Stephanie and Happy are based in Lexington, Kentucky.

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