Think Again: Study Bucks Common Perception Of Injury Rates In Juvenile Sales Horses - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report
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Think Again: Study Bucks Common Perception Of Injury Rates In Juvenile Sales Horses

A 2-year-old breezes ahead of the 2013 Keeneland April sale

Popular opinion has long held that the 2-year-old Thoroughbreds turning in single-digit furlong works at the spring training sales must be training harder and faster than their race-prepped stablemates and have the injury rates to prove it.

Turns out, popular opinion could have it wrong.

According to a study presented at the 60th Annual Convention of the American Association of Equine Practitioners in December, horses prepared for racing did indeed less of their training time in fast work, but had no significant difference in injury rate than horses trained for 2-year-old sales. Veterinarians examined two groups of horses in the same Ocala barn over a nine-month period—one 57-horse group bound for the sales, the other 45-horse group training up to the races. The trainer of both groups was unidentified but said to have 30 years in the business. The researchers logged the number of miles each group galloped, the number of miles the groups breezed, and took note of any injuries along the way.

Researchers discovered that the ratio of fast work to slow was 1.26 for the racing group and 1.54 for the sales group, indicating a more intense degree of training for sales horses. However, the racing group had a 49 percent injury rate, while the sales group had a 42 percent injury rate—a difference deemed insignificant by statistical analysis.

The study's author, Dr. Jonathan McLellan of Infield Equine, said he was not surprised by the seemingly high injury rate–the most common injuries in the study were bucked shins, fetlock issues, or soft tissue problems, which were not usually career-ending problems. He was surprised by the similarity in injury rates between the sales and race-trained groups.

“This is similar to humans who go the gym frequently: once in a while they will sustain some degree of injury which requires removal from training, even if it is only transiently,” he said. “The injury prevalence related to more serious injuries was more in the range of 10 percent in both groups. These numbers were in keeping with what has previously been reported.”

And indeed, the majority of horses in both groups made it to their first race: 86 percent in the racing group and 89 percent from the sales group. Race-bound horses were older by their first start, too—2.82 years old versus 2.55 years old for the sale horses. That difference was determined to be statistically significant.

“I think there is a general perception that more intense training is a 'bad thing' because trainers intuitively think that the less miles put on a horse the less likely they are to become injured,” said McLellan. “They think that if they train less, they will get injured less. They think that sales horses must have been 'overtrained' to get that so fit so early in the season.”

On the contrary, he said, research has shown time and again that horses' skeletons respond to stresses by strengthening; without some intense work, the bones won't develop the proper strength.

McLellan is quick to caution that the study has its limits; although focusing on two different groups in the same environment and under the same trainer allowed the researchers to eliminate outside influences like training surface, riders, etc., it is possible that the trainer's own methods could have somehow affected the results. A broader study could help determine what impact training methods might have on a horse's injury rate, and such a study is in the works—McLellan and his colleagues are accumulating data from several years at a single training center to study more horses without location biasing the results.

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