When trainers bring horses to the track, Dr. Mary Scollay of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission said, she hopes they are fit to race. But if they aren't, racetrack veterinarians do what they can to stop them from running.
It's called "profiling to prevent injury," Scollay told participants in the fourth Summit on the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse, Tuesday at Keeneland.
The goal of profiling is to figure out which horses have "unacceptable risk of injury," Scollay said. "We're not attempting to eliminate all risk. ... Success is reflected in the exams that don't take place.
"If we're clear in establishing our expectations, then the trainer knows whether his horse is in acceptable condition."
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The vets' primary tool is the pre-race exam: they check the horse's front legs and watch it trot away from them. But, she said, "marginal horses can be manipulated. The problem with the race-day exam is the risk of illusion of soundness."
To see through that illusion, vets have begun identifying "horses of interest" based on exercise history, past performance in races, previous pre-race examination findings and other information, including drug intelligence, she said.
Some things raise a red flag: if a horse is dropping down in class of race, for instance, or there is a sudden change in rider.
Vets now observe horses in training, after races and out of competition to further identify those with potential problems.
And new results from three years of input into the Equine Injury Database have found more red flags.
Tim Parkin, a researcher at the University of Glasgow, told the summit that 89 tracks in North America are now reporting injuries that vary in severity from fatalities to minor injuries. Those tracks make up 93 percent of all flat racing.
With more than 40,000 equine injury records, the data show a rate of fatal breakdowns of more than 2 for every 1,000 starts on dirt, less than 2 on turf and 1.3 on synthetic surfaces. That's a clear distinction, Parkin said.
Other distinctions also have emerged: horses in lower-level "claiming" races are 1.8 times more likely to break down than those in higher-level stakes races. Intact male horses, horses 3 years old or older, and/or those dropping in claiming price are all more likely to break down, he said.
Ultimately, Parkin said, the data might allow vets to get a computerized printout with each horse that will identify an animal's potential risk and highlight those that deserve the greatest scrutiny.
"It's still very important to remember that even for very highest risk, the risk is very small for each start," Parkin said. "We're not suggesting we use any of these tools to pull horses out of races but to identify horses of further interest."
The safety summit continues Wednesday at Keeneland with a panel discussion of racing commissioners and another on racehorse aftercare and retirement options.
The summit is open to the public and is being streamed live. Go to Jockeyclub.com and click on the Summit item under "news releases."