Information, Technology Help Focus Equine Safety Effort

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At 3:50 a.m., Dr. Stuart Brown, Keeneland’s equine safety vice president, receives a batch of emails. They’re a starting point for his daily efforts to make the races and training at the Lexington track – and anywhere the horses go – safer for the equine athletes.

The emails, from The Jockey Club’s InCompass Solutions, list horses at Keeneland and its Thoroughbred Training Center that fit a characteristic, identified through the past 15 years of industry safety efforts, as potentially placing horses at greater risk – such as a layoff of 120 days or more, or older horses that haven’t had a start.

“If you accept the premise that the job that we do for safety at Keeneland and the Thoroughbred Center goes with those horses wherever they compete, then at times of the year when we don’t have an active race meet going on, it’s important to know how those horses performed at the other places they went,” Brown said.

For everyone involved, not just vets, “the horse is at the center of it all,” he said. “If we continue to focus on the fact that we’re all there for the four-legged, mane-and-tail athlete, and that’s our focus, and what we all do in our efforts revolves around that … then we have a lot of power to sort of impart the kind of change that we expect to see (in promoting safety).

“These tools, that have been created from within that InCompass system, create questions that we have … to provide the answers for. They turn into being opportunities to advocate for the horse.”

The ease and wealth of information available to today’s veterinarians might be unimaginable to the veterinarians before who only could document their work on paper.

“In today’s world, being able to share the information with our colleagues amongst regulatory veterinarians, it’s better than it’s ever been,” said Dr. Will Farmer, the equine medical director for Churchill Downs Inc. “And that really does help us protect the horse to the best of our ability.”

The technological improvements converge with increased acceptance of pre-race and out-of-competition veterinary exams along with 15 years of data from the Equine Injury Database.

The industry has come a long way. As recently as the mid 2000s the Thoroughbred industry couldn’t tell critics how many horses were injured or died during racing.

A watershed moment would be the first Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit in 2006 at Keeneland, coordinated and underwritten by Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation and The Jockey Club. Among its first recommendations: developing a national injury reporting system and health, medical, and injury record-keeping system. The initial database began with a 2007-08 pilot involving 48 tracks with the help of InCompass.

After Eight Belles suffered a catastrophic breakdown pulling up after her second-place finish in the 2008 Kentucky Derby, The Jockey Club formed its Thoroughbred Safety Committee. One of its first recommendations that year called for industry adoption of reporting for the injury database. And, InCompass launched its pre-race veterinary exam software. In 2010, the safety committee recommended use of the InCompass pre-race exam module and the sharing of inspection information by all racing officials. InCompass also made it free to tracks that agreed to share data.

A recent piece of the growing effort to use information to prevent equine injury is the creation of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, which took control of industry safety efforts in 2022 and through federal legislation has the authority to require pre-race exams at the tracks it oversees, which currently is the vast majority of United States tracks.

“For the first time, horses’ treatment records are available to regulatory veterinarians in any jurisdiction,” said Dr. Jennifer Durenberger, HISA’s equine safety and welfare director, in a written response to questions.

That’s a change from the information shared being limited to regulatory information, she said.

“In addition, treatment histories are now available to the new owners, trainers, and veterinarians when a horse is transferred, sold, or claimed,” Durenberger said. “This information enables all parties to have a more complete picture of a horse’s medical and regulatory history to promote continuity of care.”

While Durenberger most recently served as The Jockey Club steward for the New York Racing Association, she also previously was a regulatory vet for NYRA and the California Horse Racing Board.

“I’ve been around a long time, so my perspective may be a bit different than those with a shorter trajectory,” she said. “When I started regulatory work, we wrote down our pre-race inspection findings on a large index card. That card was filled in with race-day notes by veterinarians and filed alphabetically in a box at that racetrack. We used to fax lists of horses that had gone on our vets’ list to neighboring states. When equine injury reporting first started, it was a bunch of us voluntarily filling out paper forms and mailing them to Dr. Mary Scollay for manual input into a database she kept at her house.”

Scollay, who in her 30-plus years as a regulatory veterinarian launched an early effort to track equine injury and helped shape the EID, now serves as chief of science for the Horseracing Integrity and Welfare Unit, the enforcement arm of HISA. Current vets and safety directors appreciate the progress.

“The amount of background information that we have on these horses from a veterinary medical side has definitely increased from where it was before the old paper system,” Churchill’s Farmer said.

In his career as an equine practitioner, Farmer has seen a technological evolution, including previously as a regulatory veterinarian in Kentucky and California and in ongoing work with the Breeders’ Cup.

During that evolution, many vets have operated in a hybrid system of entering their paper notes into a computer once they got back to the office. Farmer also said some earlier computers – while available – were not sturdy enough for stall-side use.

“Now you can get it on your phone,” Farmer said. “It doesn’t matter if you have Android or Apple. You can get it anywhere at any point in time. And it’s so much more user friendly than it ever was.”

For instance, Farmer said he used to have to keep lists of horses in case anyone called for information.

“Now I can put (the call) on speakerphone and pull it up as I’m standing there,” Farmer said. “I can pull it up live and tell him the information right then and there.”

Keeneland’s Brown said it’s “become easier than pencil and paper.”

Throughout its history, InCompass has worked with the practitioners to refine its system to provide the information practitioners want to see, said InCompass senior vice president Chris Dobbins, with now maybe 50 different safety reports.

“We continually tweak or add new reports as regulatory vets call and ask about, ‘Well, I was thinking about looking at this factor. Is that possible?’” he said. “And we went through it to see if we had the data and come up with the algorithm to create that report and produce that report for them.”

For instance, Brown, who for years before coming to Keeneland worked in private practice at a Lexington clinic, requested the racetrack software be adapted to accommodate horse evaluations at the training center.

“One of the things that has to be a big commitment of a racing association is to know your population,” Brown said.

Knowing about a layoff helps prepare association vets for closely observing those horses through the paddock, post parade, and to the starting gate, Brown said. “There may be a perfectly logical explanation for that (layoff). But it’s important for us to know that.”

A horse in an at-risk category may be perfectly ready to race, but the information is a tool for the vets; letting them know that more observation may be warranted. Brown noted that besides pointing out the at-risk horses, the safety reports also have “helped me to celebrate the victories of the horsemen and the veterinarians that care for those horses here.”

This technological arc also coincides with the 15th anniversary of The Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database, the statistical analysis which has been overseen by University of Bristol veterinary epidemiologist Tim Parkin.

“Tim Parkin’s work has been super helpful to identify what those risk factors are, and if they’re changing,” Farmer said. “By having more jurisdictions than ever entering exam information into InCompass, it allows us to apply those risk factors more consistently than ever before and more thoroughly than before.

“Because we have more tracks that are entering data into InCompass, when a horse comes to Kentucky from another racing jurisdiction we’re more than likely going to have at least some historical exam information on the horse.”

Farmer said the best evidence of the progress in all these safety efforts is the database’s injury rate as pre-race exams have become more commonplace. The first published number was two fatalities per 1,000 starts in 2009. Over time, that has declined to 1.32 in 2023.

“I don’t think we’ll be able to say, ‘Oh, it saved x amount of horses,’” Farmer said. “What I think you can say is that it helped in reducing the overall fatality rate from where we were in 2009 to where we are today. It’s only going to continue to improve.”

HISA’s Durenberger credits the industry for working hard through educational efforts like the Grayson-Jockey Club Welfare and Safety Summits and the Association of Racing Commissioners International model rulemaking process to create potential points of intervention to mitigate those risk factors. Farmer also credits the Racing Medication Testing Consortium’s regulatory veterinarians conference with helping standardize what a pre-race exam consists of and offering training on exams.

“When a horse goes from one jurisdiction to the other, we at least can start to speak the same language of what we were seeing and how we want to document it,” Farmer said.

Into the future, veterinarians have plenty of ideas about what could be the next advancements to help horses, such as use of artificial intelligence, increased use of video, and wearable sensors.

“How does AI fit into helping us identify a potentially at-risk horse, based on the information that’s been put into the (InCompass) system?” Farmer said.

Keeneland already uses cameras around the racetrack – an outgrowth of using the broadcast feed cameras during training. If Brown thinks he sees something while watching the morning works while standing in the stretch, he can go back and watch all of the available video of that horse on the track.

“I want to be able to validate what I think I’m seeing,” Brown said. “I want to be able to go back and replay the tape, and then look at it so that I feel like I understand that population better than I did before.”

“We’ve been able to utilize the camera system in order to better understand or appreciate how horses are doing when they come up at the time of entry,” Brown said.

Farmer also is interested in wearable sensors that complement already available information. Sensors have the potential to catch subtle changes at high speeds, like a very small change in stride, that can’t be caught by the naked eye or felt by a rider on the horse’s back.

For HISA’s Durenberger, “the frontier is to get practical tools in the hands of trainers and veterinarians to help them identify horses who would benefit from an evaluation … to help horses speak for themselves. Remember, horses are prey – not predator – and they are wired to not show signs of weakness or injury.

“Every trainer that I know, and I’ve known some pretty good ones, has lost a horse (to an injury) he or she never saw coming. What if wearable technologies or artificial intelligence could throw a yellow flag on a horse and identify a horse in need of an evaluation and that horse’s training could be modified as a result to prevent oncoming injury? Modification of training is far less costly to the industry than waiting for injury to manifest.”–Gregory Hall


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