Summary of the Summit: Racing Equipment and Safety

Racing Equipment & Safety

Keeneland president and CEO Nick Nicholson talked about racing in relationship to other sports that have an “admitted, inherent risk”; those sports, he said, promote the idea that they are doing everything possible to make the sport safe for the participants.  Racing has, he said, a “moral responsibility to fans to protect the riders, horses, and participants.”  “It’s the right thing to do,” he declared, adding that it’s also good for business.  Racing can’t, he said, grow the fan base without earning credibility from fans. 

He mentioned wagering integrity as one issue on which fans deserve credibility, and he noted that jockeys, trainers, and owners need to work with the tracks and each other.  He acknowledged that unfunded mandates can be a hardship for some in industry who struggle to make ends meet. 

As an example of progress, Nicholson pointed to the Jockey Health Information System, noting that Keeneland was the first track to require that all jockeys be enrolled.  This secure website can provide access to medical personnel in the event of a jockey injury.

Nicholson noted that areas needing focus are starting gates and safety rails.  Starting gates, he said, are the “single most dangerous moment” in the race, which makes it all the more surprising that no real studies exist on gate safety.  Most gates, he said, are 50+ years old, and there’s been little analysis of or improvement in their engineering.  Woodbine, he said, is the exception, because it has undertaken safety initiatives with its gates. 

He added that most starting gates are leased, and the company that owns them is responsible for paying for improvements.  The owners, he said, don’t approve many suggestions for improvement. 

Similarly, he said, little research on safety rails has been done in the 1970’s.  He also noted that improvements could be made in helmets and safety vests. 

He suggested setting benchmarks for safety through licensing and experience.  What, he asked, does NASCAR require of its drivers before they’re permitted behind the wheel?  Does racing, he asked, need to examine when a jockey is ready to ride? 

He then related an anecdote about a visit that racecar driver Dario Franchitti made to the track.  When asked what type of driver is the most dangerous, Franchitti said, “A bad one.”  Similarly, said Nicholson, jocks in the jocks’ room say that the most dangerous jockey is a bad jockey.  (Nicholson did not mention that Franchitti is married to Lexington native and U.K. graduate Ashley Judd.) 

Unsurprisingly, Nicholson characterized himself as a “big fan” of new racing surfaces.  He went on to say that the priority it making racing safer for the horse and rider, no matter what the surface, adding that there’s “no single solution,” and that a particular type of surface shouldn’t be mandated or forced on other tracks. 

Nicholson then offered some Keeneland statistics.  Since 2006, there have been:

  • Two breakdowns in maiden claiming races
  • One in a maiden special weight
  • Four in allowance races
  • Three in stakes races

There have been the most breakdowns in races at six furlong (four); most races are run at 1 1/16 miles, and there’s been one breakdown at that distance. 

By distance:  the highest number of breakdowns occurred at 6 furlongs (4).  The highest number of races was run at 1 1/16 miles, and there was one breakdown at that distance.

Since January 1, 2007, there have been 10 fatalities at Keeneland.  Racing began on the synthetic surfaces in October 2006, and since then, there have been 10 breakdowns from 9,662 starts.  Nicholson offered other statistics, which he said are available on Keeneland’s website.  I haven’t yet located them, but I’ll link to them when I find them.  Openness and transparency, he said, are the right way to go. 

Nicholson was followed by Dr. Edward Hall, director of the Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Research Center at the University of Kentucky.  Hall related the history of the Center, discussing how it’s funded and staffed.  He then offered a long and specific explanation of spinal cord injuries and their treatment.  His presentation was medical and physiological in nature and focused on spinal cord injuries in racing, without a specific connection to racing, though obviously these types of injuries are a critical element of racing. 

The presentation then moved to a panel discussion, beginning with Bob Duncan, a “consultant” who has years of experience at the starting gate.  He observed that the first “25 or 30 years” he worked at the gate, he did it “the hard way,” through “macho handling” of the horses.  It was, he said, the way that he was taught. 

That way, according to him, didn’t look at the consequences for the horse.  The schooling process, he said, wasn’t teaching.  “We thought we were teaching,” he observed, but a lot of time they were just putting a Band-Aid on the problem, not really trying to fix the underlying reasons that horses had trouble at the gate.

He said that the way that horses are taught affects the horses, the riders, and the assistant starters.  If, he said, humans can get a basic understanding of how horses interact with each other, if we can understand their herd mentality, we can gain a relationship with the horse and change how he thinks about us and what we’re asking him to do. 

Horses, he said, draw on herd dominance.  The horse wants you to move out of his way.   In discussing a horse’s first experience behind the gate, he said that a starter can take a horse in his hands and create movement.  As one moves an anxious horse, instead the horse seeing the human as the enemy, the horse can look to the human for leadership, safety, and comfort. 

That, he said, is the key to our success and safety at the gate and in racing. Wouldn’t it be great, he asked, if riders had more understanding of this?  He observed that such a philosophy also applies in the stable area.  When Duncan finished speaking, he got one of the very few rounds of applause of the day. 

[Note: The following comments are presented with apology, without attribution, and incompletely because I didn’t catch the names of all the panelists and because some of them were difficult to hear.] 

At Woodbine, it was pointed out, the gate pops open without a sound other than the bell, and it’s configured so that horses can’t rear and get stuck.  Because of the different design, horses have to load differently; they have to come in at an angle and they can’t get jarred sideways.  Because Woodbine races at night, there’s a light in each stall of the gate.  Woodbine was praised for spending money and doing research, and for its conscientious approach to gate safety. 

Mike Ziegler, executive director of the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance, noted that no rules currently exist about gate padding.  Racing should, he said, figure out as scientifically as possible the best case scenario for padding, which could then lead to a model rule.  The existence of a model rule, he said, would make it possible to have a standard to point to on an accreditation visit. 

Another element of track safety needing improvement, it was suggested, was the track warning system.  It should be uniform, several people suggested, so that every individual knows what it means, at every track.  Another suggestion was a way to supervise exercise riders, perhaps using outriders to determine whether an exercise rider has sufficient skills. 

Another suggestion for keeping riders safe is a sort of “unsafe horse database,” in which riders could look up information about a horse’s behavior to help them handle the horse.  Hoof maven Fran Jurga tweeted a suggestion:  Perhaps the database could be used to protect farriers, too?

It was noted that use of safety reins is not required for NTRA accreditation.  If it became a model rule, Ziegler said, it could become a standard.  He noted it would require agreement from Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and the Jockeys’ Guild. 

Just a few more to go, folks, on the racetrack environment and safe training practices; Thoroughbred retirement; and goals and objectives.   And believe it or not, sprinkled in will be posts that have nothing to do with the Summit—I swear!

4 thoughts on “Summary of the Summit: Racing Equipment and Safety

  1. I think it’s great the powers that be are at least discussing this stuff! Interesting information regarding gate loading, isn’t Duncan the man who helped Quality Road after the BC? Thanks!

  2. In recent years, there has been new research on the effects of concussions on athletes. I would like to see some preventive research on traumatic encephalopathy in a similar way that the NFL and NHL are addressing the issue. Considering the number of times that jockeys hit their heads on the ground after a fall, it would beneficial for the industry to address identifying concussions and the appropriate response to prevent long term brain damage.

  3. This is real interesting stuff. Along these same lines, the Sunday print edition of the Times Union (Albany, NY) has an article on Bob Duncan and his techniques on working with horses in the starting gate. You can check the website Monday, it might appear online at that time.

  4. Linda–yes, Duncan is that man–he has quite a reputation among everyone who’s worked with him. And as Robert has so helpfully pointed out, here’s a terrific article on him.

    Stuart, I recently commented on something similar–I wish that I could remember where I’d read something about research on helmets and head injuries in racing.

    Thanks for reading and commenting, folks–

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