Fiona Macleod discovers how two Scottish universities are helping the Australian horse racing industry shorten the odds in its battle against injury and disease
Gambling on horses begins long before a thoroughbred reaches the race track. Many yearlings bought for their potential to make money never even make it to the race course, through injury, respiratory disease or lameness.
The Australian thoroughbred industry is now attempting to shorten the odds by commissioning academic research to help them tackle leg and respiratory problems in its horses. The aim is overtly commercial - to maximise a national industry's success both on the racetrack and in the export markets.
An Pounds 118,000 study has been funded by Australia's Rural Industries and Development Corporation to address the problem of premier yearlings breaking down before even seeing a racetrack. The Thoroughbred Wastage Study is being carried out not in Australia, however, but from Glasgow.
Bringing expertise all the way from Scotland is the logical choice for the Australians, because of the highly specialised combination of scientific and mathematical skills provided by a unique joint venture between two universities.
Heading the research team is Stuart Reid, chair of veterinary informatics and epidemiology at the Universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde. He holds the first ever joint professorship between the universities, which are situated cheek by jowl in the city, and which was created last year. It is designed to combine the two institutions' expertise in veterinary science, statistical and mathematical modelling and information science.
Working with Reuben Rose of the University of Sydney, Professor Reid is now applying epidemiological and statistical techniques to estimate the scale of the Australian industry's problem and identify key areas for prevention.
The study comes under the remit of the department's Veterinary Informatics and Epidemiology Group, set up by Max Murray of Glasgow and George Gettinby of Strathclyde. It has attracted more than Pounds 2 million in external research funding, Pounds 500,000 of it since January last year. The group was set up to use information science techniques to deliver findings from its research.
The commercial application of their work ranges from identifying the risk factors of specific diseases to providing systems and predictive models allowing expert interpretation of clinical data. Researchers can apply their combined expertise to the study of quantitative epidemiology, statistical and mathematical modelling and information science in the domain of animal and human disease.
Its varied work includes a project over the past five or six years on bovine viral diarrhoea virus, a major concern in Europe and endemic in the world. The group is modelling a control for the virus and is in close collaboration with the industry to provide a decision support module. They aim to produce software which will be able to define the number of cattle at risk, and how the disease evolves over a number of years. Its commercial use to veterinary practices and government departments will be enhanced by further models which show what happens if a herd is vaccinated each year, or with different vaccines.
At the moment, however, Professor Reid is focusing on his Australian thoroughbreds. "We are doing this research for industry," he says. "But there are actually not big financial spin-offs with this. We are not in this to make more money for the Australian industry. It is welfare-driven. We want to identify risk and how best to manage it.
"But equally there is no point in turning round and saying no two-year-olds should race. We are investigating thoroughly and are concerned about bringing methods in to make sure the horses' treatment is fair and they are capable for the job intended."
He adds: "It is not just academic expertise on offer here. We want to increase our knowledge and understanding of the risks associated with racing and try to do something about it. These risks have never been quantified in Australia or elsewhere and only when this has happened can it be decided whether interventions can make a difference."
Professor Reid's research has concentrated on examining the musculoskeletal injuries in racing thoroughbreds at racetracks administered by the Australian Jockey Club. Findings already published show that field size, barrier position and class of race are all significantly associated with breakdown. Multiple logistic regression was used to investigate the effect of each putative risk factor, while controlling for all others.
Horses at greater risk were older, started from a wider barrier position, ran at the same distance as their previous race and raced in the highest class. There was no significant difference between tracks or significant association with track condition. He also found that the incidence of fatalities in the study population was less than that reported in the UK and the United States. This finding is commercially important for the industry. Horse racing generated 0.4 per cent of Australia's GDP in 1996 and the country is the second largest producer of thoroughbreds after the US.
Professor Reid has already presented early findings to the industry and is now moving on to the next stage of the research. He will be examining records of all horses in the Sydney and Melbourne areas for the past ten years and following the progress of some 200 young horses to chart their injuries and illnesses.
"The age of the foal is likely to prove an issue," he said. "Racing convention dictates that all horses are given an official birth date of the first day of the year, so a younger animal may have to be worked harder in training to make them ready for competition against rivals which are some months older."
Professor Reid said: "The main research is a representative analysis of injuries within the thoroughbred population during racing. We will be studying a cohort of animals for three years, from the start of the yearling sales. The spin-off involves identifying problems occurring in breeding centres. We can make an impact on equine disease with modelling, and help the industry in identifying why almost half the animals bought to race don't then race effectively, or don't make it to the race track at all."
The research funding is being provided equally by the Australian government and the industry itself. "While the money is funded half and half," said Professor Reid, "the issue is being forced by the industry. We are trying to help people who are interested in identifying problems through quantifiable research. But we are not responsible for long-term interventions."
Professor Reid has identified already that, for example, some racetracks have higher breakdown rates than others. "This was not necessarily something that the racing industry had thought was causing problems," he said. "The assumption that because Australia's racetracks have firmer ground than other countries and that this could mean higher breakdown rates is not necessarily accurate. This has repercussions for a major national industry when competing to host events against such countries as the US or Britain."
So will Britain's racing industry commission similar research here? Professor Gettinby is cautious about the study's wider commercial application. "We are drawing on statistical methods and mathematical modelling and we need an application for that. Here it is a marriage between veterinary work and epidemiology. We just want to know if one and one make three - that is why we are statisticians. But we are increasingly looking for solutions to problems. We put the critical mass together and here it is for veterinary and statistical surveys."
For the sport of kings, it might be imagined that spectacular sums of money would be freely offered. Britain, however, does not look like following the Australians in pouring money into improving the industry's commercial prospects, to say nothing of improving animal welfare.
Britain's EU membership is also a complicating factor. European legislation classifies horses as a food animal, even though this is not how they are seen in Britain. Equine disease funding is not part of Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food's remit and so falls between the two approaches.
"We are pursuing funding for equine research problems with great endeavour,'' said Professor Reid. "But the situation as regards the racing industry is quite complicated. Our money in Britain comes from organisations such as the Home of Rest for Horses, and the Donkey Sanctuary. We have had funding from the Horse Racing Betting Levy Board. But funds depend on how much people are spending on gambling. There is no real government/industry partnership here."