The rush to improve safety since Eight Belles was euthanized at last year's Kentucky Derby did little to curb the number of horses dying at American racetracks in 2008, The Associated Press found in a national count.
Although many tracks were already implementing safety reforms when the popular filly pulled up with two broken legs after finishing second at the Derby in May 2008, her death on racing's biggest stage gave the effort a national face and new momentum.
However, the count found only a slight change in the number of fatalities in 2008 (1,217) compared with 2007 (1,247). That's about 3 percent fewer deaths.
"If it were that easy to change, we would have flipped that switch a long time ago," said Mary Scollay, Kentucky's equine medical director, who is assembling an industry-wide database on horse breakdowns, the findings of which haven't been released. "We've learned injuries are very complex in their causes, and there are a number of things that need to be critically evaluated."
Racing officials and equine experts are unsure exactly why the total remains so stubbornly high, although they point out that racetrack deaths can happen for a variety of reasons. Also, no single change is likely to produce overnight results, and many states implemented reforms after the Derby, so their effect would be felt for only part of 2008.
By this year's Derby, nearly every major racing state had banned anabolic steroids, even though a necropsy showed Eight Belles was not on them. Tracks also scrambled to enhance the testing of their racing surfaces, apply padding to starting gates, replace whips with noisy but less painful riding crops and outlaw a certain kind of horseshoe known to cause injuries.
"I believe, and I think our fans believe, thoroughbreds are competing in a safer environment today than they were one year ago," said Alex Waldrop, president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.
Of the 26 states that provided statistics for both years, 12 reported more deaths last year than the year before. Thirteen others reported fewer, and Virginia listed eight both years.
Louisiana reported the biggest improvement, dropping from 68 deaths in 2007 to 40 last year.
But reasons for breakdowns remain a mystery.
When Turfway Park in Florence, Ky., replaced its dirt surface with synthetic in 2006, there was no fatal breakdown for the first 69 days of racing. Then in the holiday meet last December, eight horses died within a month — twice as many as an even longer holiday meet in 2007.
Turfway officials are still examining what might have caused the increase, but among the theories is that its ban on rear "toe grabs" — shoes that contain metal spikes to aid in traction — might have backfired. A ban on front toe grabs is now standard in the industry, but Turfway has since rescinded its ban on the rear ones.
Since the death of Eight Belles, NTRA issued a checklist of proposed safety changes and appointed a panel led by former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson to investigate tracks and accredit those in compliance. Churchill Downs was the first to gain approval.
"Accidents can happen," Thompson said, "but if an accident happens, let's see if we can make the results of that accident as minimal as possible."