In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Silver Blaze, Sherlock Holmes deduced that the person who stole and killed Colonel Ross’s racehorse owned the stable dog. Holmes’ associate, Dr. John Watson, recalled:  “Colonel Ross still wore an expression which showed the poor opinion which he had formed of my companion’s ability, but I saw by the inspector’s face that his attention had been keenly aroused.

‘You consider that to be important?’  he asked.

‘Exceedingly so.’

‘Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?’

‘To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.’

‘The dog did nothing in the night-time.’

‘That was the curious incident,’ remarked Sherlock Holmes.”

Maybe the racing industry has been looking at barking dogs for answers about breakdowns when, in fact, the answers lie as much or more with the dogs that don’t bark.  Explanations could be hiding in plain view.

The Associated Press counted in excess of 5,000 reported fatalities at Thoroughbred racetracks between 2003 and 2007.   Everyone wants to reduce racetrack injuries for the sake of jockeys and the animals they ride.  Moreover, breakdowns are terrible publicity for the sport, as painfully illustrated by a couple of recent high-profile cases, and drive away customers and fans. 

Bear with me for some brief professor/researcher talk.

Breakdowns and deaths of horses and jockeys on the racetrack (the effects or dependent variables) are a function of any number of factors (the causes or independent variables).  So far, the racing industry has mostly hypothesized that the causes may be track surfaces, shoeing (toe grabs), medication (especially steroids), breeding practices (in-breeding, line breeding, and mating mares and stallions who themselves raced on medication), and 2-year-old competition.   These are the barking dogs.   As a consequence, expert veterinarians, blacksmiths, and geneticists are consulted for insight, as they should be.

But think about other causes–and causes that may interact potently with one another in a perilous way–that should be scientifically tested, as well.   As a longtime professor, I am ingrained with the need to address problems/issues by searching relevant literature, formulating hypotheses, subjecting them to rigorous experimental design and statistical testing, and drawing conclusions supported by the findings.   Anecdotes are intriguing, but can lead to the wrong reasoning and solutions.

Consider some plausible causes of breakdowns that need to be explored in depth:

Weather.   Atmospheric conditions seem likely to be a major contributory factor, particularly in the effect weather has on racetrack surfaces.  Ostensibly, Winter is worst of all.  For example, Turfway Park in northern Kentucky had eight horses die from racing injuries during a 21-day meet in December 2008, with six of the eight entailing  trauma to left front legs.   In February, 2004, jockey Michael Rowland suffered mortal injuries in a spill at Turfway Park (before installation of a synthetic track).   In November 2005, at Beulah Park near Columbus, Ohio, a 16-year-old jockey was killed in a race.  In December 2001, one jockey was killed and two were injured at Beulah Park.

Yet, many breakdowns can be found in warmer weather, as when Arlington Park had 17 horse deaths in its Spring-Summer meet of 2008, which equates to one breakdown for every 192 starts, compared to one in 1092 starts at another Chicago racetrack, Hawthorne Park, in 2008.  Once a consultant said that nothing was wrong with the racetrack, Arlington Park management mentioned “rainy weather.”

The University of Vermont published a report on worldwide horse accidents occurring from January through March 2004.   Under the sub-category “Accidents While Mounted, Driving, or Riding,” there were 17 serious accidents (deaths or bad injuries) listed from around the globe.   Of these, about half were in warm weather and the other half were in cold weather.

Temperature, Precipitation, and Track Surface.   Cold weather per se may not be causal, but in conjunction with conditions like rain, mist, snow, and sleet, there may be a connection.  In addition, this may differ depending on surface type–dirt vs. synthetic vs. turf.   Each of these variables would have to be tested together, such as the combination of below 32 degrees Fahrenheit and snow, or above 80 degrees and rain, and so on.  Racing has enough history and data to do the tests.

Class and Number of Starts.   Do racetracks with cheaper horses on their cards have more breakdowns?   It would be useful to test whether breakdowns occur more frequently in bottom-level claiming-type horses.  

Do Winter-weather meets at Aqueduct, with the best cold-weather racing,  have fewer injuries than cold-climate meets at racetracks with cheaper levels of horses?  

Is there a correlation between a horse’s number of starts and its propensity to breakdown?   Are $5,000 claimers with at least, say, 80 career starts more prone to injury than $5,000 maiden claimers with three starts?   This makes sense intuitively because, in general, the longer a horse races, the worse his or her legs become.

Trainers and Jockeys.   Do the racetracks with top-level trainers and jockeys experience fewer racing injuries?   Are the trainers more likely to send out sound horses and are the jockeys more adept at staying out of trouble in races?  

Do warm-weather racetracks have fewer injuries in the Winter than the Northern tracks racing in cold weather?   If so, is it, in part, because  the best trainers, superior jockeys, and higher class horses usually race during the Winter at warm-weather racetracks?

Distance.  Are breakdowns more prevalent at shorter distances, longer distances, or does it matter?   Have the most Breeders’ Cup breakdowns been in the Sprint?

One could conjecture in the absence of a thorough study that sprinters are most subject to injuries because of the rapid pace right out of the gate.   On the other hand, routers might be more injury-prone in that horses tend to tire badly in the stretch, sometimes lug out,  and are vulnerable, especially under strong urging by riders.

Field Size.   Larger fields correlate with increased handle.  Do racetracks that have trouble filling races rely more on horses with physical ailments? Do these racetracks suffer more breakdowns?

These kinds of queries are suggestive of potentially fruitful lines of inquiry.  They can be quantified and subjected to statistical analysis to search for answers upon which solutions can be based.   My guess is that no one variable by itself comes close to accounting for breakdowns, but rather, synergy is involved.  The risks of breaking down most likely are increased dramatically whenever variables occur together; hypothetically, for example, in horses with 75 or more career starts, trained and ridden by less skilled people, and racing in freezing weather,  plus precipitation, on dirt tracks.

In addition, some causes are likely to be generic whereas others are track-specific and surface-specific.

Opinions abound, of course.  What is needed is a scientific, data-based approach to the problem of catastrophic injuries and breakdowns, as follows:

  • An exhaustive literature review and consultation with experts to identify possible causes besides the usual emphasis on medication, breeding , etc., and neither limited to Thoroughbred  racing  nor the United States.   Standardbred and steeplechase breakdown rates should be examined, as well as injuries in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere.
  • A conceptual or theoretical framework for evaluating the causes of breakdowns, complete with empirically testable hypotheses.
  • Acquisition of representative longitudinal data on breakdowns and injuries.
  • Experimental designs to control for extraneous variables.
  • Statistical analyses to test for significance and interactions/synergies among causal variables.

This study would require the cooperation of racing industry organizations to supply the necessary data and to fund the research.   Until this is done, speculation about racetrack breakdowns will be just that.   Once the research is completed, then recommendations can be formulated on what to do to mitigate the racetrack-injury cloud that  looms over the sport like the Sword of Damocles.

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