Dear Grayson-Jockey Club: It’s the Horse, not the Track
The Grayson-Jockey Club recently doled out $1 million for 19 research projects in 2014. One is entitled:
OPTIMIZATION OF RACETRACK SURFACE PROPERTIES
Susan Stover, University of California-Davis -First Year (2 Year Grant)
Here are a few statements from the study summary and my ‘expert’ commentary.
“Evidence indicates that race surfaces affect the likelihood for injuries in racehorses.”
Sure, I’ll buy that. The latest breakdown stats per 1,000 starters are something like 2.1 on dirt, 1.75 on turf, and 1.5 on synthetics. That is likely statistically significant, but it’s not as simple as the first glance would indicate. Dirt races are run differently than the other 2 surfaces with respect to opening fractions. It seems reasonable that a horse on dirt going through a 22sec first quarter and rubber-legging it home in 25+sec is at increased risk for disaster, roughly 30% more at risk as it turns out.
Keep in mind that I’ve seen turf breakdown data from Australia, home of the world’s best turf sprinters, that comes in at 0.6 breakdowns per 1,000 starts. Hmm. I think that is a far more useful topic needing research dollars: Do US horses on turf breakdown 300% more often than any other racing jurisdiction in the world?
But I digress, back to the proposed study once again:
“We hypothesize that fetlock hyperextension, and thus related injuries, can be prevented by developing race surfaces that change the way the limb interacts with the surface. Our objective is to determine the characteristics that a race surface should have to prevent fetlock injuries.”
Ok, you lost me. For every 1,000 starters in the US on dirt, 998 of them survive, yet the ‘problem’ is the track? We add more-forgiving synthetics to the mix, along with their slower turf-like opening fractions, and the number or survivors jumps to just 998.5?
I pause to remember Afleet Alex and his infamous stumble coming out of the final turn in the 2005 Preakness:
In real time you can jump to 1:49 in the clip and see Alex clip heels coming out of the final turn. Slow motion replays after the race commence at time 3:14 for those interested. Not only did Alex regain his balance and win this race, but he continued on to win the Belmont Stakes 3 weeks later with the fastest closing quarter mile in 40 years!
Alex was so well-conditioned by Tim Ritchey that he had enough neuromuscular endurance to not only refrain from getting injured, but to get back on the correct lead and storm home. Many readers will recall that Alex experienced his own unique form of interval training: often galloping a few miles in the early a.m, coming back to walk the shedrow, then going back to the track a few hours later to breeze. Surely, just a coincidence.
Watching that replay and the stumble leaving the final turn of a race, is where bad things can, and do, often happen. A while back Aqueduct raceway in NY had a rash of breakdowns (twice as many as normal) that were summarized by location on this handy diagram:
The analysis went on to state: “When the location of each injury were superimposed on a diagram of the inner track, the distribution is consistent with that seen at other North American racetracks and does not indicate any anomaly of the inner track.”
So, it can be said this pattern of breakdowns is prevalent throughout the US. Boy, that’s a lot of injuries in the final 3F of a race. 15/21 to be exact, with 8 in the final quarter alone. Just when most horses are exhausted. Does anyone mean to tell me the condition of the track is different here? No, the level of exhaustion in the horse is what’s different here. Accidents and ‘bad steps’ certainly happen – but only make up less than half of the incidents, in my opinion.
Know what is buried in this 200+ page summary of the Aqueduct breakdowns? ZERO horses broke down in training on this inner track during the 3.5 month time frame.
Again, the track is the damn same for everyone, and while several hundred trainees never breezing more than 4-5F are just fine ‘skeletally speaking’, 21 are killed going further on raceday for your gambling enjoyment. Perhaps one should investigate why so many more horses suffer catastrophic injuries in the final furlongs of a race, if the true culprit is the racing surface itself?
A main catalyst for the formation of the Equine Welfare and Safety Committee? The untimely death of Eight Belles after her courageous effort in the 2008 Kentucky Derby. Where did it happen? During the 11th furlong of a 10 furlong race – steps after she ran the fastest/furthest of her young life. Not a ‘bad step’, not a track malfunction – intense physiological fatigue and the accompanying loss of neuromuscular coordination. R.I.P. brave filly, but how is ‘certifying’ a gate crew going to prevent this from happening again?
So my point is? Physiologically exhausted horses break down, regardless of the race surface. It happens in endurance, and it happens in the cross country portion of eventing. That is the common denominator, not the racetrack surface.
Here’s a great quote noted by the immortal Steve Haskin from Bloodhorse:
The day before the 130th Preakness Stakes (gr. I), jockey Jeremy Rose said of Afleet Alex, “This horse will run over broken glass if I ask him to.” Damn right.
So what to do? Merely watching a horse jog is pointless, that only catches the obvious cripples. Pre-race veterinary checks will never catch a horse who’s wheels are set to fall off after 6F in 1:12, with 4F left to run, using the Kentucky Derby as an example. But my method will:
PRE-KENTUCKY DERBY PHYSIOLOGICAL TESTING FOR ALL ENTRANTS
There exists a precedent for using a heart rate monitor in conjunction with equine racing. Many endurance races of 30 miles and over require the checking of an exercising horse’s heart rate during several checkpoints throughout the course. Should the heart rate fall outside of the normal ranges, the horse is disqualified from the competition and immediately examined by trained personnel.
Through the use of a heart rate monitor/GPS unit, one can outfit a horse in under 30 seconds with the equipment required to measure and record equine heart rate, speed, and distance during any gallop, breeze, or race.
The resulting info serves much as an exercise stress test does in a human, observing and quantifying the horse’s heart rate response before, during, and after an exercise bout will indicate the presence of abnormalities. The equine heart is the best vital sign of lameness, illness, or injury – often weeks before any visual cues are apparent to the trainer.
For the Kentucky Derby length of 10 furlongs, I would recommend the following:
-Test to encompass 12s/furlong pace at 60-70% of race distance for these elite horses
-1.25 mile race requires 6 furlongs breeze in 1min12sec
-Taken and passed, no less than 3 days before race, no more than 10 – ideal would be 7 days out.
-Recovery heart rate must fall to 120bpm within 2 minutes, and 80bpm within 10 minutes of peak work speed. (2min period reflective of horse being cooled down properly and possessing structural soundness, 10min period reflects fitness level/conditioning of horse).
In my opinion we must strive to prove that a horse is conditioned appropriately for a 6 furlong effort the week before being asked to race 10 furlongs. I would prefer a mile ‘test’, but no way modern day trainers will go for that, even though the old-timers sure would. Horses that have undiagnosed problems with bone remodeling, tendon or ligament stability, or systemic illness or infection will not pass such a test, but they will pass a simple vet-administered jog, or even gallop, ‘test’ with flying colors. They may also ‘pass’ a radiograph examination. It’s not so much what is wrong with a horse at rest, but what is wrong at the 3F pole heading for home. The only way to assess that is by on-board physiological monitoring. Think of a HR monitor as a stopwatch: only instead of measuring work done, it measures the metabolic cost of that work. It measures heat generated by blood pumping from the heart, in effect. Too much heat after 6F in 1:12 is a cause for alarm with 4F still to run.
-taken from letter sent to appropriate Jockey Club authorities in March 2008 by yours truly.
It’ll never happen. My solution entails veterinary, trainer, and owner cooperation – some of which have something to hide. It’s much easier for the Jockey Club to send money to a desk jockey who will merely analyze race statistics in front of a computer, than to change the behavior of the stake-holders, even for the betterment of the horse. I respectfully suggest the Jockey Club needs to spend this money, and wield their influence, in the real-life laboratory found on the backstretch and on the racetrack.
What if we monitored HR/GPS/blood lactate in hundreds of breezing horses at Aqueduct?
What if 10 of those horses broke down in a 3 month period? (about average)
What if those 10 displayed a statistically significant variation in their gallop lactate values, or their post breeze HR recoveries?
Wouldn’t that be more valuable than yet another study on track surfaces aiming to improve survival rates per 1,000 starters from 998 to 998.5?