Purse money and handle are among the traditional measuring sticks of a racetrack's success. While Turfway Park is struggling on those fronts, the Florence oval is having an exceptional meet in the most crucial area — their horses' welfare.
With a little more than a week left in its winter/spring meet, Turfway Park is doing much better than the national average in the number of catastrophic breakdowns that have occurred over its Polytrack surface. Dr. Mary Scollay, equine medical director for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, said Turfway has had only two fatalities since Dec. 1 from more than 4,500 starts.
Scollay, who first presented the information during a commission meeting on March 14, said Turfway did not have any fatalities in races conducted during the months of January and February and only recently recorded one in March.
Considering the national rate for catastrophic injuries stands at about two horses per 1,000 starts, Turfway's current safety run stands out as "remarkable" to Scollay, especially amid the track's brutal economic conditions.
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Turfway announced earlier this month it was cutting overnight purses by 25 percent with its minimum purse falling from $6,000 to $4,500.
"Whenever an industry is under duress, it becomes easier to make poor decisions," Scollay said. "Turfway could have cut corners on their surface management. Horsemen could have decided appropriate vet care was neither affordable or justifiable and the racing office could have put pressure on people to enter horses that were not adequately conditioned or to over-race horses. Clearly we could be telling a very different story here."
While Scollay and Turfway officials view the track's safety mark as a tribute to collective diligence rather than one specific measure, statistics released by the Jockey Club on Thursday do show a widening gap between the fatality rate for horses running on dirt surfaces compared to synthetics.
According to the most recent numbers gathered by the Equine Injury Database — which Scollay helped establish in 2008 — the rate of fatalities for races on dirt in 2011 came in at 2.07 per 1,000 starts compared to 1.09 per 1,000 starts for races on synthetic surfaces. A total of 283,745 starts were made on dirt in 2011, significantly more than the 45,700 conducted on synthetic tracks.
Races conducted on turf had a fatality rate of 1.53 per 1,000 starts in 2011 from 50,362 starts.
"When we installed Polytrack (in 2005) we believed it would be a much safer surface than our former conventional surface," Turfway President Bob Elliston said. "That has born out in spades, honestly."
Based on an analysis of 1,160,045 starts collected by the Equine Injury Database during the three-year period Jan. 1, 2009, through Dec. 31, 2011, the overall race-related fatality rate was 1.91 per 1,000 starts. For individual years, the fatalities per 1,000 starts was 1.98 for 2009, 1.88 for 2010 and 1.88 for 2011.
Matt Iuliano, executive vice president of The Jockey Club, noted that since its inception, the Equine Injury Database has grown to where 93 percent of race days are now represented and that the reporting was changed to a calendar-year basis to match other statistical reporting by The Jockey Club.
"The addition of more than 379,000 starts to the database in year three enabled us to statistically validate certain trends seen in the data," said Dr. Tim Parkin, a veterinarian and epidemiologist from the University of Glasgow, who serves as a consultant on the Equine Injury Database. "The prevalence of fatality is not the result of a single variable in isolation but rather the simultaneous interaction of myriad variables contributing in concert to injury."
There are other variables that go into trying to avoid the fatalities on the track.
Over the years, Turfway officials say they have gained a better grasp on how to keep their surface consistent, especially through fluctuating weather during the winter.
The track's pre-race examinations, which are not required in every jurisdiction, see that each horse entered is pulled out and jogged in an attempt to spot possible issues before they turn into catastrophes.
"It's a cliché but, you put the horse first and they'll put you first, and from a safety perspective that's always a paramount concern," said Elliston, who added that the track has about 10 veterinarians on the grounds from the morning through the race cards.
"We've gotten smarter over the years about how to manage the surface ... working with the vet team here. Prevention is huge. All these data points that are coming together are making us all much smarter."
At a time when the New York racing circuit and its slots-fueled purses are drawing more of Kentucky's horsemen and horses away, the scarcity of breakdowns at Turfway is juxtaposed against a rash of incidents at Aqueduct, which has had 18 fatalities during its inner-track meeting.
But various published reports have said that none of the New York horsemen or jockeys have condemned Aqueduct's inner dirt track as unsafe. Even though his track boasts some exemplary numbers in that respect, Elliston is mindful enough not to view the statistics as absolute proof one surface or one set of practices trumps another.
"With breakdowns, you unfortunately never know when an unrelated cluster is going to crop up on you," Elliston said. "Knowing the guys in New York, these are guys who are absolutely mindful of breakdowns, they hate them like we all hate them and would do anything they could to make them stop. They're just dealing with a cluster right now and we've been there in the past. But there is no doubt that in the long haul, we have become much better with relation to the consistency of our surface."