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Making racing safer

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By Whitney Harrod

Saturday, Big Brown may make it to the pinnacle of thoroughbred racing and become the first Triple Crown winner in 30 years.

For some concerned trainers, owners and farriers in the thoroughbred racing industry, tomorrow may also be another day closer to uncovering the cause and effects of horse-related injuries.

Mitch Taylor, owner of Kentucky Horse Shoeing Academy in Mount Eden and a certified journeyman farrier in the American Farrier's Association, is researching why racehorses break down on and off the track.

He believes the use of toe grabs in thoroughbred racehorses has been linked as a causal factor for muscular-skeletal breakdowns in horses. Toe grabs, or modifications to horseshoes, have typically been more than 4 millimeters in thickness on racehorses.

Research performed by Susan Stover, D.V.M., Ph.D., of the University of California at Davis, suggests that high toe grabs on front shoes make a thoroughbred 16 times more likely to suffer a muscular-skeletal injury while racing.

Both Taylor and Stover have proven 90 percent of catastrophic injuries happen with toe grabs.

"When Thoroughbreds are asked in the early ages to run at such high speeds, things are out of balance and things break," Taylor said. "So, one of the most important things we can do is research and find out what we can do in our little part of the trade, and see if we're having a positive or negative effect. Then, we need to do something about it."

Opposition

Taylor said research in the past exploring why toe grabs should be banned has been ignored because of the traditional nature of the horse industry.

"Many trainers feel the use of toe grabs on their horses provides them with a competitive edge that they would otherwise not have. Their thinking is all based on anecdotal evidence," Taylor said. "For instance, if Todd Pletcher had toe grabs on the last horse that won the Kentucky Derby, everyone would want them."

In a few weeks, Taylor will again present his research to the Grayson County Jockey Club in hopes of receiving a $200,000 grant. The grant, if awarded, will continue to fund Taylor's current research that goes beyond what has previously been performed.

Track surfaces

With the grant, Taylor will conduct research showing the correlation between muscular-skeletal injuries caused from toe grabs and muscular skeletal injuries caused from different track surfaces. Last year, Taylor conducted a pilot study showing how horses move on Polytrack, non-cushion hard-ground and deep-cushion dirt tracks.

Polytrack, invented and first installed by Englishman Martin Collins in 1988, is a shock-absorbing, synthetic surface made completely from recycled material comprised of rubber chips, pieces of jelly wire, fiber and sand. Polytrack has been installed at 10 racetracks across the world.

The integration of synthetic surfaces has come with some problems. During winter races at Turfway Park, in Florence Ky., cold weather caused clumps of the frozen Polytrack to clump and hit both the jockeys' and horses' faces.

However, the same California Horse Racing Board that prohibited toe grabs in February 2006 mandated all of their major race tracks convert to synthetic racing materials.

"It was our first step to get awareness back out about toe grabs and now we want to carry on and ask more questions," Taylor said. "Muscular-skeletal injuries have been shown to take horses off the track by 62 percent, so we felt this was huge to combine the two together. No one has ever done research of this kind."

Research

With a software program called "Ontrack" and state-of-the-art video equipment, Taylor is able to visually slow down a horse's movement and measure the compression and foot angle of a particular horse. He compares the movements of similar horses, with and without toe grabs, on different surfaces.

Taylor attributes a partial cause of Eight Belles' breakdown at the 2008 Kentucky Derby to hard tracks and high toe grabs. The filly was euthanized after fractures to her cannon bones and breakage to her supportive ligaments torn in both front legs during the race.

Despite the fight to install synthetic racing surfaces and ban toe grabs, opposition continues against the changes. Taylor said by implementing certain changes to the industry, not only will the well being of horses improve, but also racehorses will have the chance to run on an equal playing field.

Taylor said the horse racing industry needs change. He said with any sport there is injury, but injury should be minimized to make horseracing as safe as possible.