Thoroughbred racing officials want answers about what is causing a rash of fatal breakdowns in the last month at Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky.
Dr. Bryce Peckham, the state's chief racing vet, reported on Tuesday that at least eight horses have been killed by catastrophic breakdowns during racing since the track's meet that began Nov. 30. That compares with five in a comparable period in 2007, although one fatal injury occurred in the paddock.
At least six of the 2008 horses injured their left front legs, Peckham told the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. But he said so far other common factors such as where on the track, type of race, or racing conditions have not been identified. Turfway has been racing on Polytrack, a synthetic surface, since 2006.
Racing commissioners expressed shock at the figures. "With the artificial surface, I thought the injuries would be less than that," said Tracy Farmer, commission vice chairman. "Has their been a change in the track?"
"I'm not sure. I can tell you we're very concerned about this injury rate," Peckham said.
No one was present from Turfway Park; track president Bob Elliston could not be reached for comment. Commission chairman Bob Beck Jr. requested that Elliston be asked to report on the situation next month.
Racing resumes at Turfway on Wednesday.
Only one jockey apparently has been injured; Terry Meyocks national manager of the Jockeys Guild said that general consensus is that the track is safe. "As far as the jocks are concerned, they don't feel there's a problem with the racetrack," Meyocks told the commission.
Peckham said track and state officials are looking into the surface conditions and other possibilities. Peckham said that horse trainers have expressed concern over Turfway's policy against "toe grabs" on rear horse shoes, and the track has rescinded it.
The state last year passed new regulations banning most toe grabs or cleats on front horseshoes in the wake of the death of Kentucky Derby second-place finisher Eight Belles. The filly was wearing toe grabs, although they have not been shown to have contributed to her fatal breakdown at Churchill Downs. However, a Jockey Club task force recommended banning front toe grabs, along with other safety changes, on the strength of research that showed such shoes can place undo stress on the legs.
Turfway Park and Keeneland, which is a co-owner of Turfway, implemented a "house rule" banning rear toe grabs as well.
Peckham said Turfway has lifted the ban and since Jan. 1 racing commission vets are tracking all runners and shoe types to look for trends.
"I think (allowing the shoes) is a positive step by the track to address the injuries. I think it is a good idea to try it and see," Peckham said. But he said he doesn't think it will be the whole answer. "We're looking at everything. We're not focusing on any one item."
Although the state vets monitor all racing, state regulators do not monitor or regulate training. Racing commissioner Burr Travis, a Northern Kentucky attorney who races horses at Turfway, said he had heard anecdotally that as many as 14 horses have been injured during training as well.
"Everybody's concerned about it -- the safety of the horses, the safety of the jockeys," Travis said afterwards.
Peckham said he knew of only one training breakdown, although some vets have reported chipped ankles.
He said there were 16 ambulance runs during racing to remove ill or injured horses, although some of those were heat-related during unseasonably warm temperatures. "We have had quite a few injuries other than catastrophic breakdowns," Peckham said.
Commission member Tom Conway suggested canvassing horsemen and vets at Turfway to better determine the extent of the problem. "We need to get out in front of this," he said. "If we have had 14 injuries and eight breakdowns, we've got a problem."
Dr. Mary Scollay, the commission's equine medical director, said disclosure is a problem. Scollay has been working to collect data from racetracks across the country on injuries and fatalities and she said Tuesday that the vet community at Turfway has expressed interest in being a "pilot project" to track training injuries.
"I think the whole topic is very timely because it speaks to the whole rate of injuries," she said. "It is clear there is a large concern shared by management, veterinarians, and horsemen, ... but acting rapidly is not necessarily the same as acting well."
She warned that no one change, such as using synthetic surface or changing horse shoes, will eliminate risk in racing. "There is no such thing as as vaccine against injuries," she said.
Legislation filed by Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, would require all career-ending injuries and those that required surgery, whether in training or racing, to be reported to the racing commission, along with other veterinary information about the horses.