The 10th Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit – conducted on Wednesday, June 22, at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky. – included a presentation on “Equine Wearable Technology,” which moderator Joe Appelbaum of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association likened to the popular Fitbit devices seeing widespread use in the fitness and health technology realms.
During the presentation, Dr. Scott Palmer, the equine medical director of the New York State Gaming Commission, discussed the results of a prospective study utilizing this technology over the past year at the New York Racing Association tracks.
Beginning last summer at Saratoga, every horse in one race per day was fitted with a StrideSafe device in its saddle cloth. The technology measures acceleration in three dimensions, including concussive forces on both the front and the hind limbs. Each horse, Palmer explained, has a different pattern or “fingerprint” at high speeds that would be described as normal; The data becomes most useful when it can be compared to both a horse’s normal pattern as well as a standard of horses racing across the same surface.
Palmer explained that significant deviations from the mean are a caution sign to indicate that a horse has modified its stride. Those “red alert” signs have then been used to initiate a discussion with a trainer and suggest additional diagnostics; Palmer said the data is able to demonstrate issues that “trainers can’t see, that jockeys can’t feel, that’s not obvious at all.”
That prospective study at Saratoga created 131 data collections, of which 15 were found to be “red alert” horses and 25 “yellow alert” (based on different standard deviations from the mean). The rest were considered “green,” or with data points within a single standard deviation from the mean.
Only 40 percent of those “red alert” horses raced again in the next four months, whereas 78 percent of the “green” horses returned to race in the next four months.
Continuing with every horse in every race through the Belmont Fall and Aqueduct Winter meets, the data collected was paired with artificial intelligence to continue improving the database. The project now includes 6,500 recordings of over 2,500 horses.
Palmer said the technology can “reliably detect subtle gait abnormalities, which is a way to detect lameness in the early stages and provide for more timely intervention than is currently possible.”
In one specific instance, a horse raced five times wearing the StrideSafe device, but in its fifth race, a major deviation occurred around the 50 to 55-second mark of the race. When Palmer collected the data and presented it to the trainer the next morning, he learned that the horse had walked off the track sound, but cooled out lame, and was later discovered to have a knee fracture.
“All of the success we’ve had so far (in terms of reducing the equine fatality rate) has been based upon subjective data gathered by veterinarians examining horses,” Palmer said. “I think we are bottomed out pretty well in our ability to do that. I think that we really need to use advanced technology to take another step forward to help us identify these horses that are at risk of injury.
“Right now I can say that I want a sensor on every horse… I think our fatality rates will drop way down, and I think our attrition rates will go way down.”
What the data does not do, Palmer cautioned, is tell a trainer or veterinarian where the soundness issue may be coming from. He emphasized that the conversation with a trainer did not become adversarial, but instead focused on education and prevention.
Palmer explained: “You have to tell the trainer, ‘Your horse had a red-alert performance. This is what that means. This is what that doesn’t mean. And this is what you need to do about it. ‘ Because that’s actionable intelligence, right now. “