New York track introduces program targeting sudden racehorse deaths

racing-graysonRace officials in New York are introducing a new program at its Saratoga course in what they hope will be a step toward reducing sudden deaths in racehorses.

It was among several measures being implemented at the track in a bid to prevent racehorse deaths, which stand at 11 this season. There were eight fatalities during the Saratoga season in 2013.

State equine medical director Scott Palmer said the deaths were presenting a challenge, and a thorough investigation was being conducted.

Palmer noted that all eight deaths in 2013 – five during racing and three during training – involved musculoskeletal fractures of the lower limbs.

The 11 fatalities in 2014 involved five musculoskeletal injuries – two during racing and two during training. In addition, there were two fatal cervical fractures and one lumbar spinal injury, and three sudden deaths.

He said while deaths from musculoskeletal fractures were reduced following the implementation of recommendations made by a task force, those measures were not designed to reduce spinal-injury fatalities or cases of sudden death.

“The current challenge is to design new interventions that will address these additional types of fatalities.”

He said officials were looking at designing innovative entry and exit ramps at the gap on the backstretch of the racetrack that would improve the ability of outriders and horsemen to catch loose horses and minimize the chance for injury of horses leaving the track without a rider.

They were also looking at modifications to fencing that controls access from the paddock to the racetrack to minimize the chance of injury, and modifying steeplechase hurdles so horses will not fall over a fixed obstacle.

Palmer said sudden death syndrome was a rare but well-documented cause of death in young athletes, including human athletes who collapse during strenuous competition.

He said a program was being put in place using a new investigative protocol created in conjunction with Dr Katie Kelly, a veterinary cardiologist at Cornell University, which will include measurement of cardiac enzymes associated with heart muscle damage.

This protocol will also include electron microscopy of the pacemakers and transmission pathways in the heart.

“We are also investigating innovative technology to enable veterinarians to instantly detect cardiac arrhythmias on the track at the time of a horse collapse.

“Drug-testing protocols are already in place to detect use of drugs that might induce cardiac arrhythmias,” he said.

“We will leave no stone unturned in our efforts to identify the causes of death in all racing fatalities in New York,” he added. “As stewards of the racehorse, we have a duty to do all that we can to honor and protect these incredible athletes.”

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