In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Silver Blaze, Sherlock Holmes deduced that the person who stole and killed Colonel Ross’s racehorse owned the stable dog. Holmes’ associate, Dr. John Watson, recalled:  “Colonel Ross still wore an expression which showed the poor opinion which he had formed of my companion’s ability, but I saw by the inspector’s face that his attention had been keenly aroused.

‘You consider that to be important?’  he asked.

‘Exceedingly so.’

‘Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?’

‘To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.’

‘The dog did nothing in the night-time.’

‘That was the curious incident,’ remarked Sherlock Holmes.”

Maybe the racing industry has been looking at barking dogs for answers about breakdowns when, in fact, the answers lie as much or more with the dogs that don’t bark.  Explanations could be hiding in plain view.

The Associated Press counted in excess of 5,000 reported fatalities at Thoroughbred racetracks between 2003 and 2007.   Everyone wants to reduce racetrack injuries for the sake of jockeys and the animals they ride.  Moreover, breakdowns are terrible publicity for the sport, as painfully illustrated by a couple of recent high-profile cases, and drive away customers and fans. 

Bear with me for some brief professor/researcher talk.

Breakdowns and deaths of horses and jockeys on the racetrack (the effects or dependent variables) are a function of any number of factors (the causes or independent variables).  So far, the racing industry has mostly hypothesized that the causes may be track surfaces, shoeing (toe grabs), medication (especially steroids), breeding practices (in-breeding, line breeding, and mating mares and stallions who themselves raced on medication), and 2-year-old competition.   These are the barking dogs.   As a consequence, expert veterinarians, blacksmiths, and geneticists are consulted for insight, as they should be.

But think about other causes–and causes that may interact potently with one another in a perilous way–that should be scientifically tested, as well.   As a longtime professor, I am ingrained with the need to address problems/issues by searching relevant literature, formulating hypotheses, subjecting them to rigorous experimental design and statistical testing, and drawing conclusions supported by the findings.   Anecdotes are intriguing, but can lead to the wrong reasoning and solutions.

Consider some plausible causes of breakdowns that need to be explored in depth:

Weather.   Atmospheric conditions seem likely to be a major contributory factor, particularly in the effect weather has on racetrack surfaces.  Ostensibly, Winter is worst of all.  For example, Turfway Park in northern Kentucky had eight horses die from racing injuries during a 21-day meet in December 2008, with six of the eight entailing  trauma to left front legs.   In February, 2004, jockey Michael Rowland suffered mortal injuries in a spill at Turfway Park (before installation of a synthetic track).   In November 2005, at Beulah Park near Columbus, Ohio, a 16-year-old jockey was killed in a race.  In December 2001, one jockey was killed and two were injured at Beulah Park.

Yet, many breakdowns can be found in warmer weather, as when Arlington Park had 17 horse deaths in its Spring-Summer meet of 2008, which equates to one breakdown for every 192 starts, compared to one in 1092 starts at another Chicago racetrack, Hawthorne Park, in 2008.  Once a consultant said that nothing was wrong with the racetrack, Arlington Park management mentioned “rainy weather.”

The University of Vermont published a report on worldwide horse accidents occurring from January through March 2004.   Under the sub-category “Accidents While Mounted, Driving, or Riding,” there were 17 serious accidents (deaths or bad injuries) listed from around the globe.   Of these, about half were in warm weather and the other half were in cold weather.

Temperature, Precipitation, and Track Surface.   Cold weather per se may not be causal, but in conjunction with conditions like rain, mist, snow, and sleet, there may be a connection.  In addition, this may differ depending on surface type–dirt vs. synthetic vs. turf.   Each of these variables would have to be tested together, such as the combination of below 32 degrees Fahrenheit and snow, or above 80 degrees and rain, and so on.  Racing has enough history and data to do the tests.

Class and Number of Starts.   Do racetracks with cheaper horses on their cards have more breakdowns?   It would be useful to test whether breakdowns occur more frequently in bottom-level claiming-type horses.  

Do Winter-weather meets at Aqueduct, with the best cold-weather racing,  have fewer injuries than cold-climate meets at racetracks with cheaper levels of horses?  

Is there a correlation between a horse’s number of starts and its propensity to breakdown?   Are $5,000 claimers with at least, say, 80 career starts more prone to injury than $5,000 maiden claimers with three starts?   This makes sense intuitively because, in general, the longer a horse races, the worse his or her legs become.

Trainers and Jockeys.   Do the racetracks with top-level trainers and jockeys experience fewer racing injuries?   Are the trainers more likely to send out sound horses and are the jockeys more adept at staying out of trouble in races?  

Do warm-weather racetracks have fewer injuries in the Winter than the Northern tracks racing in cold weather?   If so, is it, in part, because  the best trainers, superior jockeys, and higher class horses usually race during the Winter at warm-weather racetracks?

Distance.  Are breakdowns more prevalent at shorter distances, longer distances, or does it matter?   Have the most Breeders’ Cup breakdowns been in the Sprint?

One could conjecture in the absence of a thorough study that sprinters are most subject to injuries because of the rapid pace right out of the gate.   On the other hand, routers might be more injury-prone in that horses tend to tire badly in the stretch, sometimes lug out,  and are vulnerable, especially under strong urging by riders.

Field Size.   Larger fields correlate with increased handle.  Do racetracks that have trouble filling races rely more on horses with physical ailments? Do these racetracks suffer more breakdowns?

These kinds of queries are suggestive of potentially fruitful lines of inquiry.  They can be quantified and subjected to statistical analysis to search for answers upon which solutions can be based.   My guess is that no one variable by itself comes close to accounting for breakdowns, but rather, synergy is involved.  The risks of breaking down most likely are increased dramatically whenever variables occur together; hypothetically, for example, in horses with 75 or more career starts, trained and ridden by less skilled people, and racing in freezing weather,  plus precipitation, on dirt tracks.

In addition, some causes are likely to be generic whereas others are track-specific and surface-specific.

Opinions abound, of course.  What is needed is a scientific, data-based approach to the problem of catastrophic injuries and breakdowns, as follows:

  • An exhaustive literature review and consultation with experts to identify possible causes besides the usual emphasis on medication, breeding , etc., and neither limited to Thoroughbred  racing  nor the United States.   Standardbred and steeplechase breakdown rates should be examined, as well as injuries in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere.
  • A conceptual or theoretical framework for evaluating the causes of breakdowns, complete with empirically testable hypotheses.
  • Acquisition of representative longitudinal data on breakdowns and injuries.
  • Experimental designs to control for extraneous variables.
  • Statistical analyses to test for significance and interactions/synergies among causal variables.

This study would require the cooperation of racing industry organizations to supply the necessary data and to fund the research.   Until this is done, speculation about racetrack breakdowns will be just that.   Once the research is completed, then recommendations can be formulated on what to do to mitigate the racetrack-injury cloud that  looms over the sport like the Sword of Damocles.

Copyright © 2009, Horse Racing Business


  1. Outstanding…a number of great suggestions. It is shortsighted not to be looking closely at tracks with relatively low numbers of breakdowns? What is it about their surface? Vet staff? Horse population? I believe the answers are there, it is just a matter of allocating the resources to produce the data.

  2. Excellent article. Like any accident, a breakdown is the result of a pyramid of causes. What is really needed more than anything right now is information. Breakdowns shouldn’t be allowed to be swept under the rug, because without numbers and circumstances, including the forgotten details you highlight, we are doomed to continue the same mistakes. It’s past time to stop being defense and start being progressive and seeking solutions.

  3. (That’s defensIVE, not defense! Sorry, typing too fast…but this is an issue about which I have very strong opinions!)

  4. As an equine exercise physiologist, I monitor the vital signs of horses during daily workouts and I sometimes see horses that breeze a half mile in 49 sec that cannot recover appropriately afterwards – these are more likely to breakdown in an upcoming race at 6F or longer with the first half in 45.

    IMO, there needs to be objective data collected during the training process, so that ‘compromised’ horses aren’t sent to the races.

  5. My Big Red says

    Very interesting article and addresses many issues that I believe should be further investigated. If we want Horse Racing to survive, we MUST work together, to seek a solution to the problem of horses breaking down on the tracks. I agree with Gina, this issue should not and can not be ignored & swept under the rug. It is time to acknowledge, we have a serious problem with track surfaces and conditions. Let’s get to work & figure out why this is happening to our horses.

  6. Its one thing for Racing not to have made the effort to figure out what some of the causes that continue to plague this sport, but there is just no excuse that we turn a blind eye to the things that could be fixed and it keeps happening MEDICATION when are we going to stop allowing our horses to being subjected to these pain meds. Have you ever seen a horse win a race only to find him in his stall the next day and he cant even stand up? Its a sad truth that happens every day.The time has come for us to put an end to the things we can fix.

  7. This made me think of William Nack’s excellent November, 1993 Sports Illustrated article, “The Breaking Point” in which he discussed various possible causes of the increasing numbers of catastrophic breakdowns on US tracks as of that date, including most of the “barking dogs” you mention above. In 1993, according to Nack, the Thoroughbred industry was “at a crossroads”, having alienated the public with a succession of high-profile breakdowns. 15 years later and nothing has changed.

    A lot of research, including research that was ongoing in 1993, has been funded by the industry in recent years. If, as you say, “everyone” wants to end the carnage, I wonder how and why, with all the studies that have been done and all the committees that have been formed, “everyone” has managed to avoid the sort of basic common-sense investigation you recommend – even on a smaller scale – confined to the U.S. and Thoroughbreds, for example. It absolutely should be done and should have been started years ago.

    At the same time, the scope you propose is so huge that the project would likely take years to design and complete even if it were funded tomorrow. Drugs are a problem now. Racehorses aren’t guinea pigs, yet their owners, trainers, and veterinarians have been allowed to experiment on them for years by sycophantic, incompetent racing authorities. Whether or not a causal connection between drugs and breakdowns can ever be proven with scientific certainty, American racing really cannot afford to continue its romance with drugs.

  8. I was a part of an exhaustive study by the US Eventing Foundation regarding the sudden rash of equine and human fatalities during their events.

    The 2 big findings were:

    1. horses that brokedown were exhausted and losing coordination just prior to the accident

    2. typical vet checks done MINUTES BEFORE the accidents were unable to catch this

    We need objective, quantitative data on individual horse fitness to determine who should/should not be racing.

    In the equine endurance events, such tests are built in to the program, and horses failing to pass are immediately disqualified on course.

    So the precedent is out there already…

  9. Great article, and site!

    I noticed a news item today that CHRB is launching what looks to be an interesting study.

    I would be curious to hear your thoughts on this, the actual study as it gets underway and/or their findings.

    Looking forward to more articles!

  10. Is it possible genetics? I have researched several of the horses that have had broken legs/leg injuries during their racing careers, i.e. Northern Dancer, Ruffian, Barbaro, Prairie Bayou, Eight Belles and Big Brown and they all have one ancestor in common, especially Eight Belles, and that is Native Dancer. He is Northern Dancer’s grandsire on his dam’s side. Although that may not explain everything, I also looked up Secretariat. Both Secretariat and Northern Dancer share a common ancestor on their sire side, and that is Neacro and I have never heard of any injuries to Secretariat, it may need some looking into and possibly not breeding horses who show constant injuries to their legs during their racing careers.

  11. The focus on explotation of horses based on money as the priority objective for all those involved places the pressure upon all decision made including sugery or death by injection. What would the horses say if they were asked without training under the whip to react but think of their own dismise. When will we hear their choice and not our own for nature’s creatures, why are we making their decisions for them…money. Move that out and what will you have as thought form to solve the problems.

  12. You may not be taking additional comments on this, but, here goes:

    Did I miss something here? The dog not barking certainly must include questionable breeding practices.

    All of the issues you cite as possible causes and in need of “statistical analysis” have been around in more or lesser degree since the sport began, with the exception possibly of the drugs. A huge “dog not barking” IS the “usual emphasis on medication, breeding, etc.”, for pete’s sake!

    To me, this issue is the “elephant in the living room” that everybody steps around. There are many challenges facing the sport, none so urgent and staring us in the face as the softening of the Thoroughbred itself.

    If I’m not mistaken, there was a study with all kinds of statistical proof that horses really aren’t more prone to breakdowns now than in times past. All kinds of statistical analyses ad nauseum trying to prove that “things haven’t changed” very much over the decades is just remarkably naive on the face (show me someone who is trying to cover up the obvious, and I will show you a statistician!)

    When horses only race 5 or 6 times and then go to the breeding barn, there is no tangible evidence of the durability or soundness of the individual; then they are bred with mares who haven’t raced very much either; when horses are rushed too soon to the starting gate (does anybody really think that any colt or filly is matured at 2 to withstand the rigors of training and racing at that age?); all of these must be considered among the factors in the increase in the number of breakdowns, not to mention the very public tragedies.

    Statistics/smatistics: if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, it’s a duck, folks! When you breed crosses that have a history of fragile bones without countering with strength and durability, when it is known their ancestors carried the same propensity to break down in exactly the same place, there is a link that begs to be acknowledged! The very big dog that doesn’t bark!

    We have reached a point in the evolution of the Thoroughbred that they can’t run around the block without breaking something!

    Bill Nack, and a few others who have chronicled the Eight Belles breakdown, as well as Ellen Parker, a respected writer and pedigree analyst, and others believe that the current breeding for speed alone has caused the “softening” of the breed.

    You talk about weather, number of starts, field size, etc. Not too long ago, horses could start 40-50-60 times with no ill effects! They had weather, they had large fields, small fields, etc. Give me a break, here! One thing you left off your list is the “hot-housing” of the runners! Now, I believe that is a fairly recent phenomenon. John Nerud recounts that his training did not include locking up the runners, but turning them loose in the pasture to allow their legs the natural conditioning of pounding into the dirt. Wouldn’t it be ironic that the “hot housing” of the horses to protect them from injury was actually doing them more injury?

    Women, who are unquestionably the biggest source of new fans to the sport will not stick around when their hearts are likely to be broken watching a poor creature have to be euthanized on the track. This type of catastrophic breakdown sends new fans (male and female) scurrying back to their mechanical gambling devices quicker than you can say Ruffian, or Barbaro!