Equine Racing Fatalities: Does Track Surface Matter? (AAEP 2010)

The horse racing industry is continuously working to make the sport safer for all parties involved, and in 2008, the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) mandated the use of synthetic track in an attempt to reduce the number of catastrophic injuries that took place on California racing surfaces. To see if the switch was a success, Rick Arthur, DVM, the equine medical director of the CHRB, undertook a retrospective study to compare the rates of catastrophic musculoskeletal injury rates  on dirt, turf, and synthetic surfaces at the four major California racetracks (Hollywood Park, Del Mar, Santa Anita, and Golden Gate Fields) from Jan. 1, 2004 to Dec. 31, 2009.

Arthur presented his findings at the 56th annual convention of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, held Dec. 4-8 in Baltimore.

After three years of racing in which California tracks saw a 40% increase in equine fatalities, the CHRB made the decision to mandate synthetic track surfaces for all tracks that featured more than 30 consecutive days of racing in one calendar year, effective Jan. 1, 2008. The decision came after Turfway Park in Florence, Ky., made the switch from dirt to synthetic in 2005 and saw an 85% reduction in the number of catastrophic injuries on the track.

According to Arthur, all horses that die within the racing enclosure at CHRB tracks must undergo a necropsy. He reviewed all of the necropsy reports over the six year period to obtain his results. Arthur pointed out that he did not include several of the necropsy reports in his study, as they were not related to the track surface. The excluded fatalities were listed by track surface and included starting gate accidents, sudden deaths (such as cardiac events), and other accidents.

Hollywood Park was the first to install the synthetic track in late 2006; the other three tracks followed suit in 2007. From the beginning of the study until when the synthetic surfaces were installed on the main tracks, California had a combined rate of 3.09 catastrophic injuries per 1,000 starts, or 181 fatalities out of 58,659 starts, on the dirt tracks.

After the change from dirt to synthetic, the four major tracks in California had a combined fatality rate of 1.95 deaths per 1,000 starts, or 109 fatalities out of 56,031 starts.

The turf courses at the four tracks held a combined fatality rate of 2.44 catastrophic injuries per 1,000 starts, or 89 fatalities out of nearly 36,500 starts. There was no significance difference between 2004-2006 turf fatality rates (2.37 fatalities per 1,000 starts) when the main tracks were dirt and 2007-2009 (2.50 fatalities per 1,000 starts) when the main tracks were synthetic.

However, Arthur also discussed the fact there is a general nationwide trend that after the changeover and initial reduction in catastrophic injuries sustained on the synthetic track, there tends to be a slight and gradual rise in the number of fatalities. He attributes this to the synthetic material wearing out very quickly and difficulty in maintenance of synthetic tracks.

"This was a novel technology," he said. "It's very difficult and expensive to maintain a synthetic surface, and it also sees a very (high volume of horses working and training on the surface)."

Arthur said that he would like continue studying the effects of racing surface on musculoskeletal injuries by finding more data on nonfatal racing injuries and also on injuries that occur in training. Also, he is hoping to make further correlations with a horse's veterinary history and past track performance, and weather, track composition, and track maintenance.

About the Author

Erica Larson, News Editor

Erica Larson, news editor, holds a degree in journalism with an external specialty in equine science from Michigan State University in East Lansing. A Massachusetts native, she grew up in the saddle and has dabbled in a variety of disciplines including foxhunting, saddle seat, and mounted games. Currently, Erica competes in eventing with her OTTB, Dorado.

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