LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - Preliminary statistics from a new on-track injury reporting program showed fatality rates among horses that race on synthetic surfaces are nearly identical to the fatality rates of those that run on traditional dirt tracks.
The program took information from on-track injuries and fatalities provided by 42 track veterinarians across the country between June and early 2008.
Synthetic tracks averaged 1.95 deaths per 1,000 starts during the full reporting period, compared with 1.96 deaths per 1,000 starts for horses that ran on dirt.
Program developer Mary Scollay, association veterinarian at Calder Race Course and Gulfstream Park, said more study must be done before the safety benefits of racing on synthetic surfaces can be determined.
Scollay released her findings at the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit in Keeneland. The two-day symposium focused on the racing industry's most pressing issues, including drug testing and
the effects of different racing surfaces on a horse's health.
The number of tracks that race on synthetic surfaces like Polytrack - a mixture composed of sand, synthetic fibers and recycled rubber - has risen dramatically in the last two years. California made the switch to synthetic surfaces mandatory at all of its tracks by the end of 2007.
The synthetic surfaces received mostly positive reviews from track superintendents and trainers, who like the surface's consistency and its ability to hold up under adverse conditions.
Still, it will take some time to determine whether synthetic surfaces can prevent injuries and breakdowns better than dirt tracks.
While the composite numbers were inconclusive, Scollay pointed to a window within the reporting period - from June through last fall - that showed a significant drop in fatality rates at synthetic tracks.
Fatality rates at dirt tracks over that period was 1.79 deaths per 1,000 starts. The fatality rate at synthetic tracks over the same period was 1.19 per 1,000 starts.
"I think what the data shows me is that there is a tremendous opportunity here, and we've seen it, it's not imaginary, it's not an apparition, we have seen it and it's real," she said. "The challenge to us now is to achieve that and maintain it."
Scollay used a computerized database to generate the results. The database determined not just what percentage of horses are injured on a given race course but also the types of injuries, the location on the track where they happened and details about the horse - including breeding history and any medications it may have been using.
The results are kept confidential, released only to the reporting veterinarians, who then share them with the tracks.
The creation of an online reporting site will make it easier for tracks to report injuries and breakdowns. The database, which could be operational in two weeks, will be available to every track in North America.
"I feel that we'll have virtually complete (participation)," Scollay said.
Associated Press Writer Jeffrey McMurray in Lexington, Ky., contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)