COLLEGE STATION - Injuries such as the one that felled 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro are tragic. Research at Texas A&M Universitys College of Veterinary and Biomedical Medicine is focused on reducing that type of health issue — and some that arent quite so apparent.
Theres a lot of concern about racing injuries, said Dr. Noah Cohen, professor of equine medicine. Theyre of concern from a humane standpoint because they are often severe, and both professional horsemen and racing fans are concerned with the welfare and well-being of horses. Because these injuries are dramatic and are often witnessed by a large audience, there is a great outpouring of concern.
About 15 years ago, Dr. George Mundy, then-chief veterinarian for the Kentucky Racing Commission, began collecting data about racehorses in his jurisdiction, including those that were injured. He teamed with Cohen and Dr. John Peloso, then at Texas A&M and now in Ocala, Fla., to see what research might be done.
With money from the Texas Equine Research Account, in the mid-1990s the team began a series of studies comparing horses that were injured and those that were not.
Our first study described the frequency with which injuries occurred among racehorses in Kentucky and the types of injuries they sustained, Cohen said.
These descriptive data were important for assessing the magnitude of the problem. Fortunately, the data indicated that severe injuries incurred during racing are rare.
The data also provided some important information to veterinarians, he said.
For example, we observed that most forms of a specific type of fracture were most likely to occur late in the race, Cohen said.
The next study was an effort to identify risk factors for injuries.
Among the factors we observed was that there was a tendency that pre-race inspections by examining veterinarians could identify horses that were more likely to be injured, he said.
The horses identified to be at increased risk of injury were not excluded from racing because they were lame nor had obvious injuries, he said. The horses were all deemed sound to race. That prompted the researchers curiosity: What were the specific findings that examining veterinarians used to predict increased risk of injury, and were they accurate indicators?
All Kentucky Racing Commission veterinarians had been trained by Mundy to inspect for physical abnormalities and record their findings, Cohen said.
The investigators conducted a follow-up study of horses racing in Kentucky. They compared horses that had certain pre-race physical inspection findings with horses that did not. Certain abnormal pre-race inspection findings of specific soft-tissue structures (for example, the suspensory ligaments and flexor tendons) were strongly associated with a horse becoming injured.
These data enabled racetrack veterinarians to identify a subgroup of racing horses that were at increased risk of injury and to implement further diagnostic evaluation of these horsessuch as ultrasound evaluation of the implicated tendon or ligamentto reduce the risk of injury. The data also were an indication that many injuries occur as a result of pre-existing problems that are asymptomatic, he said.
The Texas Equine Research Account-funded studies also identified other factors associated with injury among racehorses in Kentucky. For example, training and racing patterns differed between horses that became injured and those that did not. Injured horses were more likely to have longer periods between high-speed exercise events. These horses accumulated less high-speed exercise prior to the race in which injury occurred than did horses in the same races that werent injured. These results differed from studies in California that used similar methods, suggesting regional differences may be a factor in injury, Cohen said.
The bottom line is that injuries tend to be more complex than just a single cause.
Generally, there is not one single factor that causes a horse to become injured during racing, Cohen said.
The research underscored the importance of physical inspections by veterinarians, he said, adding that some racetracks have added these inspections as part of their routines, and others have modified their procedures.
Even though signs of lameness may not appear, Cohen said, there may still be pre-existing lesions. Methods to screen for these conditions could reduce the frequency of injury, Cohen said.
The Texas Equine Research Account is funded by the education code of the Texas Racing Act. An 11-member committee advises and assists the director of the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station in administering the account, said Dr. Mark Hussey, associate director for programs.
Members of the advisory committee are selected from Texas A&M, Tarleton State University, Texas Tech University, equine research organizations and from the major horse breed associations in the state.