Track Surface Conditions Influence Likelihood of Racing Fractures

A study recently published in the Japan Racing Journal found that as turf courses become wetter and softer, fracture risk is reduced. In contrast, muddy conditions on dirt courses lead to a greater risk of horses sustaining a fracture. Masa-aki Oikawa, DVM, PhD, of the Japan Racing Association's Equine Research Institute, noted that although several biological and non-biological factors contribute to racehorse injuries, some are more important than others. "The conditions of the track surface have a major influence on the occurrence of fractures in horses during training and racing," he said.

Using records from the Japan Racing Association and the Racehorse Information Management System, Oikawa analyzed data from 1987 to 2000 regarding track conditions, racing times, and fractures sustained during flat races on Japanese turf and dirt tracks. After examining the outcomes of 556,705 horses, he found that the incidence of fracture was 1.83% for the 14-year period.

To evaluate the effects of various track conditions on speed, Oikawa compared racing times for 50,564 horses in 4,117 races held between 1990 and 1994. Distances run varied from 1,200 to 2,500 meters on turf courses, and from 1,200 to 1,800 meters on dirt courses.

Statistical analysis revealed that for turf courses, times became slower and fracture risk was diminished as track conditions changed from "firm" to "soft." Oikawa explained, "A moist, soft track means less impact on the horses' legs, which means less speed and fewer accidents."

In contrast, racing times on dirt courses became faster, and the risk of fracture increased, as track conditions changed from "fast" to "muddy." According to Oikawa, "The high water content of a muddy track causes the overlying sand layers to thin, exposing the hard track bed beneath. Hard tracks provide less cushioning, but more speed."

As conditions deteriorated from "muddy" to "sloppy," dirt course times grew slower and the fracture risk was further increased. "Horses have more difficulty running on sloppy tracks than on muddy tracks due to the excessive surface water," he said. "Sloppy tracks place a greater demand on the horse and can contribute to fatigue-related stumbling."

Optimizing a track's cushioning capacity reduces fracture risk. The research suggests that the cushioning capacity of turf courses is maximal when the water content of the surface is maintained above a specific level. Cushioning capacity of dirt courses, however, is optimized when excess water is removed from the surface.

About the Author

Rallie McAllister, MD

Rallie McAllister, MD, grew up on a horse farm in Tennessee, and has raised and trained horses all of her life. She now lives in Lexington, Ky., on a horse farm with her husband and three sons. In addition to her practice of emergency and corporate medicine, she is a syndicated columnist (Your Health by Dr. Rallie McAllister), and the author of four health-realted books, including Riding For Life, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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