The fifth Race Horse Welfare and Safety Summit wrapped up this week. I was really hoping we’d hear that they found the smoking gun when it comes to why animals appear to be more fragile than just a few decades ago. They didn’t. But after looking at the summaries, the main criticism is the one I’ve already noted – anybody who even insinuates drugs are the cause gets drummed out of the club.
For the most part they provided useful and interesting perspectives.
As I believe Mark Twain said, “They are three kinds of lies. Lies, damned lies and statistics.” On the other hand, how are you supposed to make your point other than with statistics? So as Twain might have added, it is how you use statistics that creates the rub.
Take these statistics.
- Only 31 trainers started more than 150 horses in 2013. This was used to illustrate that mega-trainers aren’t really at the core of race horse fragility. I’m not sure how they got blamed in the first place since for the most part it isn’t the mega-trainers who are dictating which sire gets bred to which broodmare, but good to know.
- However, it turns out breeding isn’t the culprit either since 16 of the top 20 sires by earnings had strong form at a mile and an eighth or longer. Similarly the 15 of the top 20 two year-old sires also had strong form at a mile and an eighth or more. Call me dense, but the fact that the top racers can go the classic distances proves the breed is as strong as it ever was? You sure it isn’t just that out of 20,000 foals born, a few hundred of them actually turn out to be solid because statistically that is exactly what we would expect? 2% of the crop doesn’t prove or disprove anything, other than the Bell curve still seems to have pertinence.
- Finally, some people posit that two year-olds are racing too early and that leads to more injuries. However, statistics tell us that more than 50% of the foal crop started as two year-olds in 1948, but today it is only 29%, so that can’t be the answer. I’m sort of thinking, doesn’t that actually tell us that two year-olds in 1948 were sturdier?
The highly respected Dr. Larry Bramlage made a fascinating point about bone issues. He said that bone remodels and strengthens in response to stress, so some injuries require some rest, others just need a reduction in hard training. This I found most fascinating. The cannon bone reacts to stress differently. At a gallop or below, stress travels up and down the bone, but at racing speed stress is rotated around the bone. So horses need the correct exposure to both sorts of stress in order to properly strengthen the bone. He didn’t say this, but doesn’t that sound like trainers need some training in how horses remodel and strengthen bones? Or maybe to put it another way, the good trainers have this figured out and the not so good trainers didn’t get the memo.
Remember Joba Chamberlain, a pitcher for the Yankees now with Detroit? Or Washington Nationals pitcher Steven Strasburg? Remember how caught up management was about limiting their innings pitched? In Strasburg’s case, it may have cost them a world championship. Ironically, they both wound up having Tommy John surgery, but maybe management was onto something. It turns out that apparently racehorses can only accumulate so much racing and fast workout stress before they are in dire danger of injury. Again, it sounds like the culprit is the trainer. Not the Pletchers or the Assmussens or the Bafferts who have first-class horse flesh and can immediately throw expensive diagnostics at the problem and put their injured runners in recuperation mode. Without saying so, it seems to be the trainers who aren’t always in a position of delicately managing a runner who are the problem. And how do these trainers deal with these injuries? Yup. Medication. Because too many of these trainers simply can’t afford to lay up their blue-collar runners.
When the expert panel consists of trainers like Todd Pletcher, you simply aren’t going to have the problems of the marginal stable conditioners represented. I have no doubt Pletcher doesn’t overuse medication, mostly because he can afford not to and still make payroll. But as I’ve mentioned on a number of occasions, if racing keeps insisting it’s not the medication and they trot out the A+ trainers to prove it, the conclusion that it isn’t the drugs remains suspicious.
If there is an extremely sad bit of anecdotal evidence, it is that jockeys and exercise riders are afraid to notify trainers if a horse is not warming up properly or working out well. In fact jockey Chris McCarron told a story about getting off a horse that wasn’t warming up well. They took the horse back to the paddock, put another rider on, and the horse won the race. But it turns out the horse never ran again. McCarron was roundly criticized by the connections.
If jockeys take an apathetic attitude because they fear losing mounts more than they fear losing their livelihood due to catastrophic breakdowns, I think what they are really saying is that once again the maze leads back to the trainers. Any trainer worth his salt will thank the jockey profusely, assuming the jockey doesn’t pull a horse out of the race too often. But the fact that too many trainers will run the horse anyway really gives one pause.
In a bright note, mandatory continuing education seems to be on the horizon. The Association of Racing Commissioners International has passed regulations to mandate four hours of continuing education for trainers. It’s a start, but seriously, how much can you accomplish in four hours? I referee high school basketball and I have to score a certain level on an annual certification exam and do two or three training camps a year if I expect to get a good schedule. I’m pretty sure something more like 20-40 hours a year for horse trainers makes a lot more sense.
I’ll say this again. Bravo to the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation for holding the summit. Sooner or later we really need someone to say enough is enough, we’ll have a national horseracing commission that can set the rules (including training) and stop just talking about the problem.