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Is Horse Racing Safe?

Credit: San Diego Shooter / Flickr

Above: The Del Mar racetrack is pictured in this undated photo.

Audio

Recent horse deaths at the Del Mar Racetrack have left people wondering if the new track is safe. We chat with the Equine Medical Director for the California Horse Racing Board.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. When Del Mar and other racetracks in California switched to a Polytrack surface several years ago, it was hoped that horse breakdowns—that is, horse injuries and euthanasia—would decrease. But a series of horse deaths at the beginning of this racing season has some officials wondering what's gone wrong. In the first eight days of the season, seven horses had to be put down after being injured during races and workouts, compared with eight deaths during the entire season last year. Del Mar racetrack officials say their experts tell them there's nothing wrong with the track, but they'll keep monitoring the situation. Meanwhile, people inside the horse racing industry say it's not just the track that is suspect. There are other issues, like breeding practices and doping that could be adding to the injury risk. No matter what the cause, seeing these great animal athletes stumble and then have to be put to death is a terrible sight. It’s a tragedy for those who own these animals, for those who love horses, and it gives a bad name to racing. That's why people who love the sport of kings are so concerned. Joining me to discuss the horse breakdowns at Del Mar is my guest, Dr. Rick Arthur. He’s Equine Medical Director for the California Horse Racing Board. And, Dr. Arthur, welcome to These Days.

DR. RICK ARTHUR (Equine Medical Director, California Horse Racing Board): Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And I want to – our listeners to know that they’re invited to join the conversation. Have you been at Del Mar when a horse has been injured? Tell us about the reaction from the crowd. Or do you have an opinion or question about horse racing injuries? Give us a call at 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Dr. Arthur, in the opening I talked about horse breakdowns in the first week of Del Mar. Have there been any other horses that had to be put down at Del Mar since then?

DR. ARTHUR: Yes, in fact, just in the tenth race last night there was a rather serious injury where a horse called Endless Moon fractured his left front fetlock on the lead and had to be euthanized, and a horse, following horse, went over the top of him and that horse appears to be doing all right. He is under observation. I spoke with his veterinarian this morning, and they think he’s going to be fine. In fact, they’re quite confident he’s going to be fine.

CAVANAUGH: Well, that brings the, I guess you could call it, the death rate or the number of horses that had to be euthanized at Del Mar this – at this time last year, in all of last season, there were eight deaths. And so we’re just about up to that point right now. I wonder how significant that number is to the California Horse Racing Board when it’s compared to how many horses race at Del Mar every day?

DR. ARTHUR: Well, you know, to put it in perspective, even if we stopped racing right now at Del Mar, the number would be very similar to what it was before they put the synthetic surface in. And I do think you have to put that into perspective. In terms of racing fatalities, the synthetic surfaces, whether it’s Polytrack, Tapeta at Golden Gate Fields, Pro-Ride at Santa Anita, or Cushion Track at Hollywood Park, overall we’ve seen a 40% reduction in racing fatalities on the comparable dirt surface going back to 2004 before the synthetic surfaces have been put in. So overall, it has been a positive change in terms of racing fatalities in which, you know, obviously it’s a very important factor in why they were installed. It has not gone as smoothly as some people would have liked and there’s been a lot of frustration with the fact that these surfaces are very difficult to maintain.

CAVANAUGH: Well, can you tell us, Doctor, what is Polytrack and what – why is it supposed to be safer?

DR. ARTHUR: Well, the – What Polytrack is, is a combination of sand, fiber material and either a wax or polymer based material that holds it together. It’s supposed to have more cushioning effect. And some of the preliminary data that was done by Dr. Sue Stover, my colleague at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, indicates that is, in fact, the case. It does have more bounce to it. The problem is, they have not been as easy to keep in their ideal state as everyone had been led to believe. It’s a relatively novel technology and it has been promising but it is – certainly hasn’t solved the problem. But I think most of us who have looked at the issue with catastrophic injuries in horse racing really never expected it to do anything but ameliorate other issues that have crept into the whole overall problem with racing fatalities.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Dr. Rick Arthur. He’s Equine Medical Director of the California Horse Racing Board. We’re taking your calls about the injuries and deaths among thoroughbreds in Del Mar. 1-888-895-5727, is the number. And I’m wondering, there was some talk that I read after the initial wave of horses that had to be put down in Del Mar when the racetrack opened this year, that the first two weeks were particularly risky for this Polytrack. Do you know that to be true? Or – And why would that be?

DR. ARTHUR: Well, it’s not just for Polytrack. It was a study that I did in the mid-eighties and we found, and at that time Del Mar was different than Santa Anita, which was different than Hollywood Park, we found that the first two weeks at any meet was the riskiest period. And even though we certainly don’t have any scientific evidence to prove this, we hypothesized that was because the horses are racing on a different surface. Just like you and I, if we were jogging on, let’s say, a cinder track, and went to a rubberized surface or went down asphalt, would very likely have different stresses on our body. And that’s what we’ve assumed that particular phenomenon comes from. But it’s fairly well recognized and you can go back historically and you see that when the populations move from one track to the next. That is – That kind of – That issue sort of evened out because of the way other racing and training has changed in the Southern California thoroughbred circuit but the new synthetic surfaces have kind of brought that back.

CAVANAUGH: Now you’ve mentioned other forms of synthetic surfaces that other tracks are using. Have any of them – has one risen up to be particularly safe? Or do they have better track records, for want of a better phrase, than this Polytrack that we’re using?

DR. ARTHUR: No. Actually, the track at Del Mar is one of the safer of the synthetic surfaces. Hollywood Park’s been relatively safe. Again, compared to dirt, we’ve seen a 40% reduction in racing fatalities. Training fatalities, it – the information is equivocal and, certainly, trainers complain about seeing other injuries but in terms of racing fatalities, it’s actually quite dramatic and is fairly even across all of them. But all of them, like we see at Del Mar, have had a tendency to wax and wane. For example, at – when Santa Anita opened, there were three fatalities in the first week and then we went almost two and a half months before the next one. So, you know, it’s been a very frustrating issue for horse racing to deal with. My colleagues – I actually work for the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis, and we have always felt that if we would’ve spent a million dollars on research and development and better understanding what makes a racetrack safe, we would – we could’ve ended up with a lot – a lot better outcome than what we’re seeing today. But we’ve, you know, we’ve certainly – the industry and the state has had budget problems and it’s been very, very difficult to get research money for that. Fortunately, we’ve been able to get several hundred thousand dollars to start a track safety research project to better understand these surfaces so that we can make racing safer for horses, and that’s our ultimate goal. But the fact of the matter is, training – track surfaces are only one of the issues…

CAVANAUGH: Right, right.

DR. ARTHUR: …and it’s – If the audience is interested, if they go to Google and search Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, and Welfare and Safety Summit, there’s been two of them have identified several dozen, three dozen or so, different issues that are potential problems in this. So the track surface is just one. You have breeding issues, as you mentioned in the beginning of the program. Medication issues have really come to the forefront the last few years. California has banned – was the first major racetrack to ban anabolic steroids, which unpublished data at UC Davis has indicated is correlated with catastrophic injuries. Intensity of exercise has been associated with catastrophic injuries, and training has changed. We’ve seen trainers move to quarter horse type training where it’s very intense and bursts of hard workouts rather than the longer, slower workouts of old trainers like Charlie Whittingham, 20, 30 years ago. Internationally, the permissive medication policies in the U.S. are not allowed. Just recently, the examining veterinarian—all horses are examined prior to racing several times—and the examining veterinarians have expressed concern that our medication programs with regards to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and there’s three – one of three are permitted in horse racing, and nonsteroidal anti-infammatory drugs are like Advil or bute except – or, Advil or aspirin, those sorts of drugs.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

DR. ARTHUR: They think that they may compromise their ability to properly examine horses. And this was a topic of discussion at the last medication committee meeting of Horse Racing Board just at Del Mar a couple of weeks ago.

CAVANAUGH: And, Dr. Arthur, I was just going to ask you one more question about the breeding practices that might lend themselves to horses be – getting injured more frequently or having to be put down. They’re being bred for speed rather than stamina and does that make the bones of the – the ankle fractures and the bones all that much more brittle?

DR. ARTHUR: No, not necessarily. And I – I think you’ve a little bit mischaracterized what…

CAVANAUGH: Sure.

DR. ARTHUR: …what is going on. What has happened is back 40 years ago people would breed and race their own horses. What’s happened is that the commercial markets selling yearlings, selling two year olds, has taken over the way the breeding selections are made. And the fact is that people buy horses based on brilliance, not necessarily longevity, so it’s been a change in the way matings are – there’s not a – there’s no longer – it’s almost like corporate America. There’s not a long term approach to breeding horses, and some people have pooh-poohed this as a possible explanation. I know some geneticists don’t think that you can change the population that quickly but, you know, those are the sorts of issues that we discussed at the Welfare and Safety Summit with – that the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation funded. And so there’s a lot of factors here.

CAVANAUGH: I think many of us are familiar with the prolonged treatment of the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro and all – They tried so hard to mend that leg and, ultimately, that horse had to be put to sleep. Do you see any treatments coming down the line that might be able to help a horse that’s broken its leg actually survive that experience?

DR. ARTHUR: I will tell you, there are horses that are injured today that come back and race that were routinely euthanized when I first started practicing. The one issue with Barbaro that I think people have missed, and that is that fracture healed. What happened was, a secondary problem—and any of your horsemen that are listening to the show will understand—is a condition called laminitis, and what it is, horses walk essentially on their hooves which are homologous or fingernails.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

DR. ARTHUR: And he developed an inflammation in that tissue from changes in weight bearing. But the fracture itself healed. So I think there’s been a lot of changes moving forward in that regard. It’s certainly, I don’t think, going to be able to save all horses but we’re doing a much better job today than we were even 20 years ago.

CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, you refer a number of times to the summit that you attended, do you see anything changing in the industry that would – coming down the line that might help limit the number of horses that get injured or have to be put down?

DR. ARTHUR: Yes, and, in fact, I’m on a conference call probably three or four times a week trying to move along some of the goals that were set in that particular conference, whether it’s on track maintenance, track surfaces, track design, shoeing—California’s banned toe grabs. The Jockey Club Safety Committee has recommended limitations of traction devices on shoes. Anabolic steroids have been banned, reevaluation of the medication program that – in the U.S. is being reevaluated, better drug testing. The Jockey Club, who operates Equibase that maintains all the records has established a system for regulatory veterinarians to record all the catastrophic and noncatastrophic injuries so we can better evaluate the problem. California has always – we’ve been in the forefront of this issue and we have, by regulation, counted and necropsied, which is the way you do autopsies…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

DR. ARTHUR: …on animals. Every horse that has died within a California Horse Racing enclosure for – since 1991, and they’ve been done by the California Animal Health & Food Safety Laboratory, which is operated by the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis and we have very good information on all of our fatalities, trying to get the people and the funds to analyze them and really maximize that program has been something I’ve been battling since I became Equine Medical Director but other states don’t have that. If you call New York, if you call Florida, if you call Kentucky, if you call Louisiana and ask for their numbers, you’ll have a hard time getting them. And if they do have them and if you ask them how they get them, they’re not going to be – They’re going to be pretty nebulous numbers.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

DR. ARTHUR: California, if you go to the CHRB website, California Horse Racing Board website, www.chrb.ca.gov, you can go to the annual report and every horse that’s been euthanized or all the data on fatalities in California is there.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you so much, Dr. Rick Arthur, for talking to us about this. Very interesting and you have a lot of information. Thank you so much.

DR. ARTHUR: You’re welcome.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Dr. Rick Arthur. He’s Equine Medical Director for the California Horse Racing Board, also with the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis. You are listening to These Days. I want to let you know that if you want to post your comments about this or any other topic we have, go to KPBS.org/TheseDays. And These Days will continue in just a few moments.

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