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May 14, 2012

Injecting Perspective: A Radical Solution To Race Track Breakdowns

Photo by Kat Netzler.

To change behavior, you need to change the incentives that lead to the behavior.

There’s been a lot of stir caused by a recent New York Times article that was strategically published the week before the Kentucky Derby. 

The Times suggests that the increased number of breakdowns this winter at Aqueduct (N.Y.) were due to two factors:

  1. Slot machine money increasing the payout to winning horses, upsetting the balance of what horses can be claimed for versus what they can earn after being claimed.
  2. Pain killing drugs allowing sore horses to run without pain until their legs fall off.

The race day medication debate has been going on for a long time. But there would be no debate if horses never broke down. That's what we really care about.

Racing is the natural sport for horse lovers to fall in love with: It is the most pure display of their greatest gift of running fast, combined with their intense desire to compete with others in the herd. How many horse lovers fell in love with racing when watching Secretariat, had their hearts broken with Ruffian, steeled themselves during Go For Wand, and finally turned their backs on racing after Eight Belles? 

There are countries with strict medication rules that indeed have fewer breakdowns. Their horses also train and race over more natural surfaces, and for shorter seasons, in many instances. But they still euthanize horses every year for injuries sustained during racing. 

Born To Run

The horse is a running machine. The more you study its design, the more you're led to believe it was drawn up by a German engineer to run as fast as possible for as long as possible using the least energy as possible. Horse owners should receive Green Energy credits on their taxes. This efficient design of storing energy from the last stride and transferring it into forward propulsion with the next stride requires minimizing any absorption of forces coming up from the ground as the foot lands with each stride.

Even the digital cushion at the bottom of the foot, which looks like an ideal candidate for shock absorption, is actually just used as a pump to make blood go back up the leg. (The tissue has been shown to lack the density necessary to absorb any of the tremendous load a galloping horse's forefoot undergoes at landing.)

So all that force goes up through the leg and predisposes the animal to micro fracture and strained tendons and ligaments that can, when not given enough time for self-repair, lead to break down of that tissue.

In really unfortunate instances, the support structures are damaged beyond the current capabilities of medicine to repair quickly enough to justify the pain the animal will inevitably experience during healing. Those animals are euthanized. Retired horses running in large beautiful fields in Kentucky break their legs and are euthanized for the same reason. Wild horses running around in Nevada also break their legs, but no one is there to relieve them of their suffering, so they experience the cruel fate of being eaten by predators. 

Horsemen who have horses vanned off the racetrack and euthanized for sports injuries remind themselves of the cruel fate of the wild horse, and they find solace in having provided three square meals and a roof until the animal's untimely demise.

No Winners Here

When horses are put down, no one celebrates. There is often at least one human involved who is close enough emotionally to the horse that he or she is quite shaken up, if not distraught by the loss. Unfortunately, they suffer in silence because the general attitude of the rest of the backside is to shrug its collective shoulders, mumble something to the effect of "that's just the game," and everyone moves on with their day. But this doesn't have to be the game. 

Some people blame medications, some blame the auction ring for changing the breed, some blame year round racing, some blame the jockeys' overuse of the whip. I believe those all play a role. But the fateful decision, and the one we need to change, is when a trainer puts a saddle on a lame horse he knows might break down, then legs up the jockey and sends them off to their destiny.

No one starts their day at 4 a.m. and enters a horse in the freezing cold in a race at midnight knowing they'll get home at 2 a.m. the next day, unless they need the money. It’s not for fame or riches, just a paycheck. Right now the equation in the trainer's mind is: "How hard can I train and medicate this horse that he'll have his best chance to win, and I won't get caught?"

Change The Incentives

If we want fewer breakdowns, we need to make the equation: "How hard can I train and medicate this animal so he has his best chance to win, I won't get caught, and he won't break down?"

The only way to change the behavior is to change the incentives. As long as the reward (purse money earned) is greater than the risk (loss of the animal), people will continue to run horses that have a good chance to break down during the race.

So how do we incentivize caution? Set down the owners and trainer of a horse that breaks down and is euthanized for at least 45 days. And ban any horses that were in their care at the time of the incident from entering a race for that same period of time. Then the public will know that racing is truly worried about that great big spot on its face (dying animals) and is sincere about trying to change it. 

Do trainers always have an accurate feel for when their horse is at risk? Not always. A lot of horses will have a swollen knee their entire career and never break down. The problem isn't the horse with the swollen ankle that breaks down. It's the last 20 horses the trainer had with exactly that ankle that he ran anyway, and none of them came back to the barn in a van.

Even more frustrating but much less common are the horses that break down that never had any heat or filling in a leg and never looked lame. But instead of justifying apathy over their deaths, the frustration should motivate us to try harder in our attempts to identify those animals at risk and do something to prevent them.

Because we actually care. It would do great things for the long-term survival of the business if the public believed that the horse industry actually cares about the horses we make our living from. 

Alex G. Emerson, DVM, provides sports medicine services for Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Ky. and Wellington, Fla. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of other veterinarians at RREH. Read his older blogs on the Sidelines website.