Neither Rocks Nor Hard Training A 'Smoking Gun' For Churchill Fatalities; HISA's Lazarus 'Optimistic' About New Initiatives - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Neither Rocks Nor Hard Training A ‘Smoking Gun’ For Churchill Fatalities; HISA’s Lazarus ‘Optimistic’ About New Initiatives

The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority revealed Tuesday that its investigation into the 12 equine fatalities during Churchill Downs' 2023 Spring meet led to no singular “smoking gun” explanation. Still, the resulting 197-page report did reveal some interesting findings.

Apparently, there was an issue early in the meet with rocks on the dirt racing surface.

Track surface expert Dennis Moore concluded that the Churchill Downs metrics did not indicate a correlation between the track surface and the equine catastrophic injuries sustained during the race meet. However, one of Moore's recommendations following his analysis was that Churchill “screen the existing cushion and pad material through a < ¼ inch slot deck screen.” 

Churchill did not follow that recommendation, revealing that its “incorporation of a rock picker and other modalities appears to have resolved the issue.” Track officials did tell HISA that they would screen the existing material on the track in 2024 “if needed.”

HISA CEO Lisa Lazarus explained during Tuesday's media conference call that the “rock issue” was “completely unrelated to the fatalities.” She said Churchill had ordered several new tractors and harrows prior to the start of the spring race meet, but that the equipment did not arrive until after racing was moved to Ellis Park. 

Lazarus said the implementation of the new equipment was able to solve the rock problem, a conclusion that Lazarus added is shared by the trainers and jockey with whom she's spoken.

“They believe it's been resolved, but we've agreed that in the event that it becomes a concern again that the material will be screened at the end of this meeting,” Lazarus explained. 

Dr. Sue Stover, who chairs the HISA Racetrack Safety Committee, acknowledged that a racehorse traveling at high speed could have its gait affected by stepping on a large rock.

“It's probably not the key factor that ends up in a catastrophic injury,” Dr. Stover said. “Basically, catastrophic injuries are related to horses that have a mild subclinical preexisting injury that predisposes them to a more severe injury under otherwise completely normal circumstances. So I think the rock issue has been dealt with and cannot explain the injuries that happened at Churchill.”

Another interesting finding in the report came from Dr. Stover's “High Speed Exercise Analysis” of the nine horses that suffered catastrophic musculoskeletal injuries, either during races or morning training.

(The other three horses died of alternative causes: two were sudden deaths, for which necropsies revealed no specific cause, and the third suffered a traumatic paddock injury.)

Dr. Stover's data revealed that the nine injured horses had both more races per year in their career and more days between their last high-speed event (either race or workout) and date of death.

“In summary, based on this analysis, there are horse-related factors that were associated with increased injury risk,” Dr. Stover concluded. “The two factors highlighted above are consistent with current knowledge of repetitive, overuse (fatigue) injuries in racehorses. Frequent high intensity exercise (as observed in injured horses) that does not allow for recovery of exercise-induced microdamage contributes to the development of stress fractures and subchondral stress remodeling which predispose horses to catastrophic injuries.”

During Tuesday's media call, Dr. Stover was asked whether this indicates that some trainers are running horses “too hard.”

“I think it's one of the things that we'll be examining,” Dr. Stover responded. “I don't think that we know that at the moment, but certainly the data from the Churchill review indicates that that needs to be examined further.

“These injuries are a result of fatigue, meaning they develop over time and ultimately can become a catastrophic injury,” she continued. “So with that knowledge, we have an opportunity to look at other factors related to the horse, and I'm very optimistic that we have opportunities for looking at those factors as well as being able to not only monitor the horse, but the emerging technologies that will help guide us in doing that.”

One of those emerging technologies is the PET scan machine, already installed at Churchill Downs. 

Positron emission tomography “is a huge game changer because of its ability to detect physiologic abnormalities in bone before other imaging modalities that look at geometry like radiographs,” Dr. Stover explained.

While the technology is certainly useful, it isn't financially viable to scan every horse prior to every race or high-speed workout. Dr. Stover said that scanning every horse isn't necessary, however.

“I think the key here is that other techniques such as regulatory veterinarian examination and attending veterinarian examination of horses can identify horses likely to be at risk,” she said. “Using another screening technique to detect those horses that should be examined with a PET scanner is the key.

“It's not that we have to PET scan every single horse before it races; we use other indices, for example, exercise training, race performance history, and how the trainer feels about the horse to identify horses that might be a little bit different, a little bit off, that then can be subjected to PET scanning.”

Next Steps?

HISA also released a six-step “Strategic Response” document to address how it plans to move forward toward a safer future for racing Thoroughbreds. 

Several of the steps have already been implemented, like establishing a Track Surface Advisory Group. Another initiative involves creating a committee to review data and make recommendations about synthetic surfaces. 

A third step begins to make use of all the data HISA has been collecting since its implementation in July of 2022. HISA will begin work with both Amazon Web Services and Palantir Technologies, which plan to utilize artificial intelligence to hopefully “identify factors previously overlooked or not considered that may play a role in mitigating equine injury risks.”

“The data analytics piece of this with Amazon Web Services and Palantir is really exciting for me,” Lazarus said. “We can now try to harness that data and actually see what it tells us, because when we say we don't really know exactly, well, the data can really show us things that we may not recognize without the help of the data. And so I think that's going to be a really productive, productive initiative.”

The fourth step pushes for more emphasis on injury prevention, detection, and management, including the use of wearable technology that has been tested at tracks like Churchill and Saratoga.

Another step includes new ADMC rules, like the previously announced but not-yet implemented requirement for a 30-day stand down time from racing and a 14-day stand down time from workouts after a horse receives a corticosteroid intra-articular injection into the fetlock joint (increased from 14 days and 7 days, respectively).

Finally, HISA's racetrack safety rules have undergone a one-year evaluation, and new recommendations for adjusted rules have been pushed to the Federal Trade Commission.

The full Strategic Response document is available here.

“The next step for HISA is we're going to take this strategic response document, make it our Bible, and we are going to work through every day to implement the elements of it,” Lazarus said. “Things are going to change a little bit as we get more information, we're going to conclude and announce the results of both the Laurel investigation and Saratoga, which also had a series of fatalities this year. And then we will modify as we need to when we learn from that.”

Lazarus added that she believes the lack of a single cause for Churchill's fatalities gives the entire industry an opportunity to embrace change.

“I think the fact that it is multifactorial gives us an opportunity, and now with a national regulator to say, we can't just kick the can down the road,” said Lazarus. “I think that's the message of our strategic response is that we're not kicking the can down the road. This is the time where racetracks and horsemen and breeders and consignors and sales companies, we all have to get behind real change. And even though one factor would've been easier, the fact we do have so many issues we need to look at gives us the opportunity to say, 'Okay, this needs to be a really comprehensive review. Nothing's off the table and no stakeholder group can decline to participate.' We've all got to be in this and we've all got to honestly and truthfully deal with the issues in our domain. 

“I really am optimistic about what we're going to be doing and I don't think we're kicking the can down the road.”

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