Good news for racehorse welfare, safety and futures from Australia to England (and in between)

First, the good news–but, then again, it’s all good news today. Equine research, safety and welfare are in the news for precisely the right reasons: The people willing to roll up their sleeves to help are in the news by doing something about making a racing world a better place to be a horse.

The big headline of the week, so far, is from Australia, where the government of the state of Victoria, along with Racing Victoria and the University of Melbourne, have announced a $5 million (Australian or about $3.8 million US) fund to research better training management of racehorses there. The goal: reduce the number of training injuries and minimize limb fractures.

The Equine Limb Injury Prevention Research Program initiative will seek to better identify horses that may be at risk of serious bone injury.

Three areas of research will be:

  • how bones of horses respond to extended exercise
  • why some bones fail under repeated stress
  • how bones may be helped to adapt to stressors and repair accumulated damage.

The research will be used to develop management plans for trainers and the racing industry, including guidelines for the intensity and duration of training as well as the frequency of rest periods.

The University of Melbourne, which will contribute $1.4 Million (Australian dollars) to the plan, said that the initiative will involve a collaboration between veterinarians, biomechanical engineers, epidemiologists and bone biology researchers.

The research will be an extension of studies already begun there by Associate Professor Chris Whitton, PhD, FACVSc, BVSC, an equine practitioner who has already been investigating bone injury and fractures in horses. According to the university, the research will:

  •  Examine pressure and loads in the lower limbs;
  • Investigate the processes surrounding bone fatigue;
  • Seek to understand bone modeling and re-modeling in horses both in training and at rest;
  • Analyze how distances and speeds affect bone fatigue; and
  • Collect data on horse injuries.

According to Whitton in a lecture recorded last year, about 20 horses a year die from catastrophic racing injuries in the state of Victoria. Overall, racing in Australia has a death rate of about 1 horse for every 2,072 starts, he said. When the deaths were analyzed, 70 percent were found to be related to limb injury and 63 percent were specifically related to bone fatigue.

Professor Whitton said the funds will go towards equipment and post-doctoral research projects.

Listen to a presentation by Professor Whitton on bone injuries in Thoroughbred racehorses:

His research has already identified how bone microdamage accumulates and is repaired during the racehorse’s training cycle. “But we need much more knowledge of how to manage racehorses in order to work with the natural bone adaptation and damage-repair processes,” Professor Whitton said. “At the moment, bone injuries are regarded as an inevitable consequence of training, but this needn’t be the case, if we can unravel the intricacies of the bone’s response to stress and exercise.”

The University of Melbourne will be taking delivery of a new standing MRI unit to be able to scan more horses without the need for general anesthesia.

• • • • •

Australia wasn’t the only place on earth with good news for racehorse futures this week. On Saturday, France will celebrate its inaugural Day of the Retrained Racehorse at Deauville Racecourse in partnership with France Galop and with the support of Godolphin , the Aga Khan Studs, of auction house ARQANA, the Haras de Montaigu and the Monceaux Stable. This is the first themed-day of its kind in France.

Among the judges at Aintree will be bestselling horse-scene novelist Jilly Cooper. (Her latest novel? ‘Mount!’)

Celebrity former racehorses will be on hand to impress the public, such as former Grand National winner, 28-year-old Lord Gyllene. A special guest is a former racehorse that no one had ever heard of until a few weeks ago. Team Brazil rider Carlos Parra will be on hand with his mount, Summon Up the Blood. The gelding, who went clear in eventing cross-country at the Rio 2016 Olympics, is a graduate of England’s Retraining of Racehorses (ROR) program.

The show comes on the heels of Tuesday’s third annual national raceday for The Horse Comes First, a national initiative to showcase all that is done to insure safety and well-being for racing horses in Great Britain. According the project’s news story, over £32 million (about 42 million US dollars) has been invested by British Racing in veterinary research and education since 2000. The sport employs over 6,000 people to care for the 14,000 horses in race training there.

Earlier this month, a meeting at Godolphin Stud in England announced the new International Forum for the Aftercare of Racehorses (IFAR), with representatives from six nations agreeing to cooperate.

And in America? You can feel the anticipation building for Travers Day at Saratoga Racecourse in New York, where 14 of the best three-year-old Thoroughbreds will contest the running of the $1.25 million Travers Stakes. Known as the “Mid-summer Derby”, it is the oldest stakes race in America. Five other Grade 1 races are on the program for that day, and NBC Sports will broadcast it.

When the sell-out Travers crowd goes home, the city of Saratoga Springs will host the 5K “Run for the Horses” on September 3 to benefit six locally based organizations that rescue, rehabilitate, and retrain racehorses: ACTT Naturally, Heading for Home, Old Friends at Cabin Creek, ReRun Inc., Saratoga War Horse, and Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation.

The retrained racehorses in the United States will soon shine in their own spotlight; plans are underway for the Retired Racehorse Project’s $100,000 Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium Presented by Thoroughbred Charities of America (TCA) at the Kentucky Horse Park.

Getting back to research, Kentucky Downs will sponsor Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation Day at the Races on September 3. The foundation retains the sponsorship fees from races that day to support its mission of funding veterinary science projects to benefit all horses.

And we should be getting back to research. Concern for the welfare, safety and care of racehorses at all points in the span of their lives has come a long way. Perhaps the concern was always there, but the can-do attitude of doing something about it illustrated by this string of worldwide events is a relatively new phenomenon. We should look forward to the day when I won’t be writing articles about these initiatives because they will be completely integrated into the racing calendar and scene as we know them.

Will the crowds in the grandstand and in the betting parlor ever be as concerned that all the horses in a race finished safely as they are about who won? Will racing accept the risks of running horses with evidence of bone fatigue or agree that bone-fatigue horses need rest and therapy before being asking to race again?

Sometimes it looks as if the work has just begun. But the menu of events and achievements like the ones happening this week around the world are a cause for celebration. If you’ve had even a small role in any of these events, proceed to the winner’s circle; accept the thanks for doing your part from thousands of racehorses around the world who have felt the difference.