By Frank Angst for BLOODHORSE — With a problematic start to the fall meet at Keeneland in terms of equine safety, track officials are working on every possible angle to address the problem, including moving forward on efforts to reform medication policies in the state.
A fourth horse suffered a catastrophic breakdown Oct. 16 when Integral was euthanized after sustaining a catastrophic injury to her left front leg. A homebred juvenile daughter of Algorithms for Suzanne and Michael Masters, the Todd Pletcher trainee was pulled up by jockey Jose Ortiz after a quarter-mile in a six furlong allowance optional claiming race on the main track. The deaths occurred in racing through nine days of the scheduled 17-day meet.
Keeneland, which through its website is providing full transparency on injuries that occur during racing or in the morning, has not had any catastrophic breakdowns during morning training, which has included 1,109 timed workouts (through Oct. 16). Still, the four horse deaths match the number recorded at the Keeneland spring meet, which also was abnormally high.
The injury rate (through Oct. 16) at the fall meeting of 4.57 per 1,000 starts and the rate for 2019 overall, 3.76, are both anomalies. The previous high for Keeneland, which also makes public its numbers through the Jockey Club Equine Injury Database, was the 1.86 rate reported in 2017.
Tracks have been under added public scrutiny after there were 30 equine deaths during the winter/ spring meet at Santa Anita Park. Local print, radio, and television news outlets have covered the breakdowns at Keeneland.
Keeneland vice president of racing and sales Bob Elliston noted research through the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database has found a number of factors linked to catastrophic breakdowns, and reducing those incidents requires vigilance in all these areas of concern—there’s no silver bullet.
Keeneland conducts extensive daily monitoring of the main track and turf surfaces, works with regulatory vets to ensure pre-race exams are conducted at the highest level, and works with the Jockey Club through its InCompass Software to ensure horses in categories of added risk—based on findings from the EID—receive added scrutiny.
Also, Keeneland has joined other Kentucky tracks in pushing for medication reform. “We’re not going to tolerate what’s going on,” Elliston said. “We’re going to continue working until we get this resolved.” Keeneland and the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission have compiled information on each of the breakdowns to determine if there are any links or areas of concern.
“The commission will continue to meet with Keeneland, as well as other Kentucky racetracks, to review protocols to determine the most effective response. The KHRC is conducting a comprehensive review in a mindful and methodical way to continue to promote the health and welfare of all horses at the track.”
Medication reform in Kentucky could begin to take shape this month when the Kentucky Equine Drug Research Council is expected to consider changes recommended by all the state’s Thoroughbred tracks: Churchill Downs, Ellis Park, Keeneland, Kentucky Downs, and Turfway Park (as well as Standardbred tracks Oak Grove and Red Mile).
The EDRC makes recommendations on racing medication rules and policies to the KHRC. That meeting is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 28. The tracks sent a letter to regulators Aug. 11 calling for the withdrawal time of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to be extended from 24 hours to 48 hours and for the stand-down time for horses administered corticosteroids to be extended to 14 days.
Other recommendations call for the elimination of bisphosphonates in racing, and, beginning in 2020, a phasing out of race-day Lasix. An oddity at this fall meet is that two of the four breakdowns occurred while racing on turf—Stella d’Oro Oct. 4 and Triggerman Oct. 9. That matches the total on the Keeneland turf from 2016-18. Stella d’Oro’s breakdown occurred on firm turf, and Triggerman’s happened on turf listed as good.
The breakdowns on dirt occurred on fast surfaces. Elliston noted both racing surfaces receive monitoring to ensure they are within safe moisture thresholds based on a study by the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory, where Michael “Mick” Peterson is executive director.
Peterson is also director of the University of Kentucky Ag Equine Program, and he has worked with Keeneland to ensure safe surfaces. This summer, the main dirt track underwent routine maintenance and testing. The cushion material on the track was pulled back to allow for ground-penetrating radar testing.
The testing ensured the hard pan and limestone base below the racing surface remained in good condition. When the testing was completed, the cushion was re-laid across the track and the mix supplemented as needed with additional sand, silt, and clay.
Confident the surfaces are safe and will continue to receive first-rate, daily monitoring, Elliston said Keeneland will continue to tackle other factors that contribute to breakdowns. In the letter from the tracks to Kentucky regulators, they outlined the need for this approach.
“As you well know, there is not a single item that will provide for the complete safety and security of our athletes. However, if we continue to attempt to solve these problems with all of the factors that are involved and necessary to create a safe environment, we can be very successful in this endeavor,” the letter read.
“We must continue to investigate and innovate as it relates to safety, and we will continue to work in cooperation with the racing commission to achieve this goal to keep Kentucky at the forefront as it relates to the production of a quality racing product for our sport.”
Other proposals outlined in the letter include a call for the KHRC to add a safety steward at tracks, a requirement that 14 days of equine medical records be presented at time of entry, creating and enforcing standards for training centers—starting with such outlets owned by tracks, concussion protocols for riders, continued innovation in riding crops, and operational improvements in regard to out-of-competition testing, pre-race inspections, and random testing after a timed workout.
“As we have discussed over the last several months, the racetracks named above have surveyed best practices nationally and internationally, and after much consultation and consideration, are seeking a number of regulatory and rule-making changes in order to continue to make our facilities and our sport safer for our human and equine athletes and to protect the integrity and longevity of the sport,” the letter read in its introduction.
“Some of these initiatives focus on medication rules, some on race day operations and others still with a focus on the constant care and oversight of our sports’ participants.” The letter later adds, “We stand ready to make additional changes by house rule and/or track protocols to ensure the safety and integrity of racing in Kentucky.”
Frank Angst for BLOODHORSE