Derby death raises new questions

Text by Tim Hyland
Barbaro and Dean Richardson
Penn Vet surgeon Dean Richardson, seen here with Barbaro, says horse-racing injuries like those suffered by Barbaro and Eight Belles can’t be prevented entirely, but can be reduced.

Trying to put the Barbaro incident behind it, the horse racing world gathered at Churchill Downs early this month for the sport’s grandest event: The Kentucky Derby.

The weather was perfect. Pre-race favorite Big Brown stormed to an impressive win. And every horse in the race crossed the finish line in good health—or so everyone thought.

Just a few moments after the race ended, second-place finisher Eight Belles, the first filly to run the Derby in years, pulled up, collapsed on the track with two horribly broken legs, and had to be put down immediately.

With the horse’s death, all of those bad memories of Barbaro came roaring back—as did the same questions that have haunted the sport for years: Is horseracing inherently dangerous? Is the industry doing enough to protect its horses? And is there anything that can be done to prevent catastrophic injuries in the future?

There may be nobody more qualified to answer those questions than Penn’s own Dean Richardson. Richardson gained national fame for his efforts to save Barbaro after the horse’s breakdown at the 2006 Preakness and, as chief of surgery at the School of Veterinary Medicine’s New Bolton Center, has helped nurse countless horses back to health.

We recently chatted with him about the health risks faced by thoroughbreds—and whether there’s any hope that those risks may be reduced in years to come.

Q: Are catastrophic injuries like those suffered by Eight Belles and Barbaro basically inevitable in horse racing?

If you’re talking about horses that are absolutely working at their physiological limit, horses who are running at maximum capacity, or at least close to it, there’s very little room for error. You can have a relatively small imperfection, such as a micro fracture, that might propagate and become catastrophic, and that’s why you might get a breakdown on the track like you saw with Eight Belles. Certainly some fractures are inevitable. And the same is true in any athletic endeavor, anything done at high intensity. There’s going to be failures in the structure. It’s going to happen. The question is how to minimize that. And there are a number of legitimate things on the table to minimize the probability of something like that happening.

Q: What are some of the ideas that are being tossed around?

There are a lot of avenues to go down but there’s a lot more work to do on them. The most simplistic concept is that you have to stop racing horses at two and three years old. But certainly that’s not going to do away with all of the fractures. I work with horses that break their legs at five, or six, or even seven. A horse can break its leg running around a pasture. The emphasis that is being paid to surfaces is relatively new and, I think, very important. But people have to be very careful not to oversell it. It’s clear already that simply training and running horses on artificial surfaces is not by itself going to result is a complete elimination of injuries. It could lessen, probably, the likelihood of a catastrophic breakdown, and obviously we need to follow through with studies over time.

Q: How about some ideas that may be less well known to the public?

The issue of pre-screening for stress injuries, which is called scintigraphy, probably needs more work. There’s a lot of interesting work and a lot of active research being done using markers that are in the blood to tell you whether bones are damaged as a horse goes along in training. That’s another area that needs more investigation. The pre-race screening or scintigraphy is something that’s probably not financially practical for every horse. It’s fairly expensive, but it does have the capability of identifying horses with stress fractures. Many horsemen and trainers are much more interested in finding these things before the catastrophic injury ever occurs.

Q: Let’s talk a bit about breeding.

Well, the breeding issue isn’t a medical issue. It’s an industry issue. And it’s a very difficult one. There are a lot of lay, ill-informed comments about the way the horses are bred. But the fact of the matter is they’re bred to be fast. Nobody is really interested in breeding slow horses. Slow horses can’t win races. There probably should be some premium placed on horses that are durable, but unless they are durable and fast, I don’t see the solution.

Q: Much of the media coverage surrounding Barbaro and Eight Belles seemed to imply that we are seeing more catastrophic injuries today than we’ve seen in years past. What’s your opinion on that?

I don’t believe that. I’ve been in this over 30 years. I think it’s like many things in the media. We’re really good at disseminating very bad news very quickly and very broadly. I don’t know that statistics even exist or that there are really good stats out there that go back as far as the number and severity of injuries.

Q: I guess the one question everyone wants answered is this: Can we really reduce or eliminate terrible injuries in horse racing?

I actually believe it is possible to decrease the catastrophic injuries. But not to zero. There’s no way. In any other sport, human sports included, there’s going to be catastrophic accidents. But I do think it’s possible to decrease the number of catastrophic injuries. Also, a lot of efforts and vast strides have been made in saving horses with very serious injuries. I think, again, that the sort of bad press you see with the Eight Belles event is an example where people think that sort of thing happens all the time. The thing is, if that filly had broken just one leg, her chances of survival were fairly decent. She had a very unusual problem, a very severe injury. But the industry knows it has a black eye and I think it is going to put more and more money in for preventing these type of injuries, but also coming up with great treatments.

Originally published May 22 2008

Originally published on .