Push to create an easy, affordable test to identify racehorses at risk of breakdown

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Work at the Gluck Equine Research Center could prove to be a major boon for racehorse welfare.
Photo by Thomas Hawk

An inexpensive and straightforward pre-race blood test to identify racehorses at risk of catastrophic injury is the end goal of research under way in Kentucky.

Identifying at-risk horses would allow intervention before those injuries happen.

Catastrophic injuries in Thoroughbreds are a major concern for the racing industry and its supporters.

Researchers at the University of Kentucky’s Gluck Equine Research Center recently launched a study to validate previous research suggesting it is possible to detect specific markers that indicate an injury before it becomes career- or life-ending.

Previous research has shown that most catastrophic injuries occur in horses with underlying or pre-existing musculoskeletal problems, leading to the theory that catastrophic racing and training injuries are due to the accumulation of damage over time at a rate that exceeds the healing capacity of affected tissues.

Based on prior work in both human and equine athletes, project leader Allen Page, a staff scientist and veterinarian at the Gluck Center, and his colleagues have developed an approach for identifying this underlying damage using mRNA expression analysis of blood samples.

The team has shown that horses with catastrophic injuries have significantly altered expression of IGF-1, IL1RN and MMP2 when compared to non-injured control horses. The researchers also recently found three new mRNA biomarkers that show further promise to predict injury.

To validate these findings, a new study began in February and will run for 12 to 16 months, using 15,000 blood samples taken pre-race at three Southern California tracks.

Samples are being drawn in tandem with standard pre-race testing, helping to make collection for the large research study more efficient.

Initially, all samples will be stored before those from injured and select non-injured horse samples are analyzed and differences compared between the two groups.

Based on previous data and the planned collection of the samples, the research team anticipates they will test 10-15 catastrophically injured horses during the study.

Page said a blood test looking at the significant mRNA markers is correct 75 to 80% of the time when trying to identify a horse that will have an injury.

The end goal for the team is the development of an easy-to-use and affordable blood test to help owners, trainers, veterinarians and others make informed decisions benefiting the welfare of the horse.

Page is collaborating on the project with Emma Adam, assistant professor and industry liaison at the Gluck Center and the university’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory.

Nancy Cox, vice-president for land-grant engagement at the university and dean for the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, thanked those who have supported the large and complex project.

Veterinarian Stuart Brown, vice-president for equine safety with the Keeneland Association and chair of the Gluck Equine Research Foundation Board, hailed the collaborative support from the racing industry for what he hailed as groundbreaking research.

“Dr Page and the team of the Gluck Center have endeavored to provide those of us entrusted with the safety of the racehorse with a tool that can be utilized to objectively assess the individual horse for biomarkers contributing to our understanding of an individual risk profile for that specific horse.

“The commitment from this team over the course of several studies while collecting samples across multiple jurisdictions represents a remarkable alignment of interests around the need to further our understanding of musculoskeletal injury in the racehorse.”

Funding for the current phase of the research has been provided by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission’s Equine Drug Research Council, Keeneland Association, The Stronach Group, New York Racing Association, Breeders’ Cup Limited, Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, Del Mar Thoroughbred Club and the Thoroughbred Owners of California.

The California Horse Racing Board, the Thoroughbred Owners of California and the California Thoroughbred Trainers group have also been acknowledged for their support of the project and for helping to enable the project’s undertaking.

“Not surprisingly, a study of this size is both logistically challenging and expensive,” Page said. “That we have such outstanding financial and logistical support from leaders in the racing industry speaks not only to the wide-reaching impact of catastrophic injuries, but also to the industry’s hope that this project will provide a real-world solution to preventing injuries.”

Dan Howe, the interim director of the Gluck Center and interim chair for the university’s Department of Veterinary Science, said multi-year support is essential to sustaining research productivity.

“As such, the Gluck Center is grateful for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission’s investment in the first two phases of this project and to the broader consortium within the equine industry that has committed resources to complete the final phase of this important study aimed at safeguarding the health of racehorses.

“We are very enthusiastic about this specific project and the positive impact it will have for the horseracing community.”

Reporting: Holly Wiemers

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