Equine Injury Database update

My first post on synthetic racing surfaces was on September 26, 2007, nine days after this site was launched. I suppose that I can rightly be called a synthetic skeptic; while heartened at the possibility of a surface that would decrease injuries, I found hasty, and perhaps even dangerous, the quick adoption of synthetics without any science to support them: who knew what the consequences might be of racing on such surfaces?

I added my voice to those that called for research, long-term, data-based research, on the effects of racing on synthetics, and I was one of many who welcomed the introduction of the Equine Injury Database. Finally, some science, in addition to the anecdotes and the emotions.

I will admit that I’ve never been quite sure that there’s a need for a third surface in racing; I’ve wondered why so much money has been put into developing synthetic surfaces, when perhaps that money might have been equally well spent on making safer our existing racing surfaces.

And my consideration of synthetics has always been through the prism of safety: not on the alternatives to a muddy track, not on the benefits of fewer scratches in bad weather, not on the confusion that’s been caused in racing divisions, not on the real or imagined difficulty in handicapping synthetics. Those factors are not inconsequential, but my interest has been largely focused on whether synthetic surfaces are in fact safer for horses and for humans.

In June in Lexington, Dr. Tim Parkin and Dr. Mary Scollay reported that based on one year’s data, the difference in injury rates on dirt and synthetics was not statistically significant. They cautioned that one year’s data was not enough from which to draw conclusions.

This week’s report sings a different tune: Dr. Parkin declared definitively that in two full years of reported data, a statistically significant lower number of horses suffered fatal injuries on synthetics than on dirt.

It’s the science we’ve been waiting for. Fewer horses die on synthetics.

Great news.  Seriously. That’s great news.

But it’s still not all we need.

At every discussion of equine injury that I’ve attended, all the participants have stressed the multi-variable nature of its causes. All have said that track surface is only one piece of a very big injury puzzle. And even though we can definitely say that in the last two years, fewer horses suffered fatal injuries on synthetic surfaces than on dirt, we can’t say that synthetics are definitely safer than dirt…or that any given synthetic surface is safer than any given dirt surface.

When, in the last couple of years, some initial reports indicated that injury rates began to decline on synthetics, observers have wondered whether it’s the surface that caused the decline, or the complete renovation of a track, top to bottom. Would a brand-new dirt track have led to fewer injuries as well? Perhaps we’ll find out this winter at Santa Anita.

Should dirt tracks with safety records that match those on synthetic tracks start thinking about replacing their surfaces? What if they don’t? What will be the public backlash if the industry doesn’t adapt to reflect statistics that on first, uncomplicated blush appear to say something simple – “Synthetic tracks are safer” – but which in fact say nothing quite so definitive?

I admit it: I’d hate to see synthetic tracks universally replace dirt. I can’t explain why; it’s not about tradition (or maybe it is a little bit), and I certainly have no fondness for muddy tracks (though I do like the idea of the mudder). But I also hate to see horses break down on the race track, and if synthetic surfaces will absolutely do that, I will support them.

The Jockey Club, the Equine Injury Database, the participating tracks, Dr. Tim Parkin and Dr. Mary Scollay are providing what we’re asking for: Science. Research. Numbers. They deserve our kudos, and our thanks.

In the Jockey Club release on the study results, Dr. Parkin said,

“Trends will continue to emerge and evolve as additional data becomes available for study and as more complex statistical analyses are performed. This will allow us to understand how different variables, alone and in concert, may impact the risk of fatality.”

Fascinating stuff, and I will wait with interest to see what variables are considered, and how they will be analyzed. I won’t, just yet, join the chorus of those declaring synthetics the savior, and I will hope that perhaps, one of those “different variables” to which Parkin alludes might be an examination of the dirt tracks with comparable safety records to synthetics.

Further reading

Jockey Club release on recent results from the Equine Injury Database

More info from the Equine Injury Database, including summary statistics

My report from the June 2010 Jockey Club Safety and Welfare Summit, including info on the types of injuries that are reported to the EID.

A collection of all of my posts on synthetics over the last three+ years (click “next entries” at the bottom of the list to get to older posts.)

4 thoughts on “Equine Injury Database update

  1. Teresa,

    Again, another important subject addressed by Brooklyn Backstretch: Thank you.

    I would like you to also pursue scientific analyses for the beneficial or adverse effects of synthetic surfaces on the soft tissues of our horses’ legs. Less than catastrophic but more influential than salvation of a uniformly Fast Track, intrahoof, ankle-, knee-joint and shoulder injuries can not only lead to racing accidents, but do also lead to lengthy healing periods after short-term or long-term stress injuries. An organically healthy horse with sore joints can’t compete and that will hurt the bottom line of today’s stables. Sidelining a percentage of our stock for sore joints also reduces the number of starter-per-race figures for racetrack wagering handles.

    Do synthetic surfaces help or harm horses’ joints? That, I think, might be the more potential question after statistical death rates are finally determined. As important as reduction of catastrophic injury is to our business and image, reduction of joint damage can keep our equine stars and stables healthy, happy and maybe profitable. And, this metric translates to a more loyal fan base, which improves the entire racing/breeding bottom line, which builds the business, which helps the horse.

  2. The equine industry has been scratching their collective heads, since Ruffin broke down in July 1975. Thousands of research projects have been performed and published but the problem remains. If and when the industry wants to solve this economic and public relations nightmare, the answer is known. American Animal Solutions Institute has done the research, developed a program that will solve the broken leg, hoof injury, and laminitis problem of all equine. The line has been drawn in the sand, but the industry will continue to ignore science.

  3. Dewayne Brake,

    I Googled American Animal Solutions Institute and failed to find their web site. Could that organization go by another name?

    The physical weaknesses and calamities you associate with A.A.S.I., “broken leg, hoof injury, and laminitis” are definitely serious problems to the equine athlete, and I don’t know of a scientific assistance to the eradication of any of them. Please provide more information because their solution is terribly important.

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