Hours before American Pharoah made racing history by winning the Triple Crown at Belmont Park on June 6 before 90,000 spectators, another thoroughbred broke its leg while running in the day's fourth race.
Helwan, a French-bred 4-year-old making his first start in the United States, was put to death on the track. As of Friday, 22 more horses have died on New York state tracks.
For racetracks struggling with dwindling attendance, these are all-too-common tragedies and public relations disasters that the industry is trying hard to avert.See alsoRacehorse deaths at NY tracks
Their approach? Doing research on what causes the breakdowns and which horses are more likely to suffer them.
"When a horse dies on a racetrack, there's nothing more devastating, more emotionally upsetting to the public, to the children at the racetrack. It's an absolute nightmare, and it has tremendous consequences for our industry," said veterinarian Scott Palmer, named the state's equine medical director last year. He was speaking in June to trainers, researchers and vets at the first anniversary celebration of Cornell Ruffian Equine Specialists, a state-of-the-art practice across the street from Belmont's backstretch.
Palmer is overseeing an ambitious program to record and investigate equine injuries and deaths, in collaboration with Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine. He was chairman of the state's 2012 task force on racehorse health and safety after 21 horses died at Aqueduct Racetrack over less than four months -- between Nov. 30, 2011, and March 18, 2012.
In response, the New York Racing Association in 2013 established an equine safety review board to analyze fatal racing and training injuries. Palmer wants to use that and other information to help educate trainers about risk factors that could lead to breakdowns and, partnering with The Jockey Club -- the breed registry for U.S. thoroughbreds -- plans to offer a required online course next year.
He and others are working to develop computer models that will help identify which horses are most at risk of injury. If combined with other tests -- such as the type of MRI available at the Ruffian equine clinic in Elmont -- these have the potential to radically alter which horses run and which don't.
Some tantalizing data already have emerged.
Eighty percent of catastrophic injuries occur in the horse's fetlock, or ankle, area, Palmer said. Necropsies show that, in many cases, horses with a deadly break in one leg show micro-breaks in the corresponding other leg. "When you see the same process in both legs, that tells you a lot about the training," Palmer said.
Database of injuries
Certain horses are much more likely to break down, according to information gathered by the Equine Injury Database. Established by The Jockey Club in 2008, it is the thoroughbred industry's first national database that identifies racing injuries in a standardized format.
Tim Parkin, a veterinarian and epidemiologist from the University of Glasgow in Scotland, serves as the database's analyst. On July 8, he presented findings from 2009 to 2014 at the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit in Lexington, Kentucky, sponsored by The Jockey Club.
Parkin identified risk factors based on an analysis of 150,000 horses and 2.2 million starts:
Age at first race. Horses that run their first race after age 2 are at greater risk of deadly breakdowns. A 4-year-old running its first race is 33 percent more likely to suffer a fatal injury. This flies in the face of an age-old belief that it hurts still-immature 2-year-olds to race. Both Palmer and Parkin said that a 2-year-old that races will develop bone density during a crucial window of time that an older horse won't develop.
Previous injuries. Horses identified on the database as having one previous injury had a 30 percent higher risk of a subsequent fatal injury. That risk increased with more injuries: Those with three previous injuries had a 110 percent greater risk of fatal injury.
Inclusion on a "vet list." A horse put on a track veterinarian's list for lameness or other problems has a twofold risk of a fatal injury within six months. Once a horse has been on the vet list, the risk does not return to "baseline" when it comes off the list; it remains at increased risk. At NYRA tracks, horses are routinely checked by a vet before a race.
Surface and race distance. A higher percentage of deaths occur on dirt tracks, where most races are run in this country, than on turf [grass] or synthetic tracks. In addition, a higher percentage of deaths occur in short races -- less than 6 furlongs, which is three-quarters of a mile -- when a tremendous burst of speed is required.
Time with the same trainer. A horse is at most risk of a fatal injury in the first month of being with a new trainer. The risk falls slowly over time. After four years, the risk declines by 60 percent.
The next step, Parkin said, is to refine the database to include other risk factors or to examine their interaction.
The goal, he said, is to be able to predict those horses most at risk for fatal breakdowns before they occur. Now, he said, their models are about 65 percent predictive. "We get excited at about 75 to 80 percent," he said.
In the meantime, Palmer also is working with a computer software company, using the Equine Injury Database to develop an algorithm that would be able to calculate levels of risk for every horse. And he is overseeing work to develop a blood test of high levels of certain bone and cartilage proteins to further identify those horses that may have undetected pre-existing injuries. The test, along with advanced imaging such as MRI, he said, could be used to pinpoint problems in horses that the algorithm identify as high-risk.
These tests, if successful, could fundamentally affect trainers' and owners' decisions about which horses race and which are retired, if only because of the potential legal liability.
Horses aren't the only ones affected by breakdowns. About one-third of the 699 falls or other incidents reported on the Jockey Incident Database, started in 2012, resulted in injuries to riders, and about one-third of those were the result of horse breakdowns, according to Carl Mattacola, professor and director of the Rehabilitation Sciences Doctoral Program at the University of Kentucky.
A spokesman for The Jockey Club declined to comment about the legal implications of running a high-risk horse.
On that issue, Palmer said: "If an individual was training a horse with very high risk, based on the exercise history, combined with increased bone markers specific to that horse, as well as imaging that revealed significant pre-existing bone pathology in that horse, then I would think that there would be a high degree of potential liability on the part of that individual if they raced the horse and it suffered a fatality and/or injured a jockey."
Palmer said he is determined to reduce horse fatalities.
"The bottom line is that we have an ongoing commitment to safety," he said. "We're never done. We've got to keep at it."