mRNA Biomarker Study to Build on Promising Research to Prevent Catastrophic Racehorse Injuries

Racehorses coming out of gate - Study to Prevent Racehorse Injuries
Identifying racehorses at risk of injury has been a goal for researchers working on a three-year study and now a follow-up study at the University of Kentucky, as the industry tries to prevent these injuries in racehorses. Photo by Moment of Perception/Shutterstock

Catastrophic injuries in Thoroughbred racehorses is a top concern for the industry and for its fans. That sentiment is shared by researchers at the University of Kentucky’s (U.K.) College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. These researchers have been working on a study to learn more about changes happening at the cellular level that might indicate an injury is present before it becomes career- or life-ending, with the ultimate goal for the industry to prevent injuries in racehorses before they happen.

According to Allen Page, Ph.D., DVM, staff scientist and veterinarian at U.K.’s Gluck Equine Research Center, a recently completed study submitted for review shows it is possible to identify several early markers for horses at risk of catastrophic injury, possibly allowing for intervention before those injuries happen.

In this initial study, Page and his colleagues analyzed blood samples from more than 1,000 Thoroughbred racehorses. The samples, collected by participating racing jurisdictions from across the country, have come from both catastrophically injured and non-injured horses in a quest to better understand if there are any red flags in horses that suffer a catastrophic injury.

Previous research showed that many catastrophic injuries occur in limbs with underlying and pre-existing damage, leading to the theory that these injuries occur when damage accumulation exceeds the healing capacity of the affected bones over time. As a result, researchers think it is likely there may be markers of this damage that can be detected prior to an injury.

The identification of protein biomarkers for these types of injuries has been explored in previous research with limited success. As a result, the group opted to focus on quantifying messenger RNA gene transcripts or markers, knowing that the results would likely be much more sensitive than measuring proteins.

“We are definitely encouraged by our findings in the initial study,” says Page. “Out of the 21 markers we measured, three of them show real promise as being able to predict injury. Since the ultimate hope is to develop a screening tool that can be used pre-race to identify horses at increased risk for injury, we anticipate adding multiple other markers with our new study that is just getting started.”

As part of their new study, Page and his colleagues plan to utilize RNA-sequencing, a relatively new technology, to expand their search to the approximately 22,000 protein-coding genes horses have. This will dramatically increase the likelihood that they will be able to identify additional markers for horses at risk of injury. They plan to do this by using the large number of samples that have already been collected, further leveraging their initial study and decreasing the amount of time it will take to complete their new study.

The new study has been funded by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission’s (KHRC) Equine Drug Research Council, which also funded the three-year initial study.

“A lot of the credit for these projects goes to the KHRC and the Equine Drug Research Council,” Page said. “Their willingness to fund our projects is really a testament to their interest in supporting innovative and novel ideas geared towards improving the safety and well-being of horses and riders.”

“I am pleased that the EDRC is able to continue to provide support for this important study and that Dr. Page is able to continue his work on finding ways to protect our equine athletes,” said David Horohov, Ph.D., MS, chair of the U.K. Department of Veterinary Science.

Joining Page in the research from the Gluck Center are Horohov; Emma Adam, DVM, Ph.D., Dipl. ACVIM, Dipl. ACVS, assistant professor, research and industry liaison; James MacLeod, Ph.D., VMD; John S. and Elizabeth A. Knight chair; and Ted Kalbfleisch, Ph.D., associate professor.

UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment through its land-grant mission, reaches across the commonwealth with teaching, research and extension to enhance the lives of Kentuckians.


  1. I felt hopeful,regarding the article Preventing catastrophic breakdowns in the racehorse.I my opinion many times the people doing the research or the people questioning,catastrophic breakdowns or severe injuries,are really not looking in the right direction. It seems it is commonly believed that the place to start the detective work at the foot as they say “no foot, no horse” and I’m sure this is true in some cases. This is an old adage,like many beliefs in the horse industry. Which only leads to repeating the same mistakes over and over again. For a better description of myself I’ll call myself an Equine Therapist of Undiagnosed Muscular Dysfuntion. For well over thirty years,I’ve treated and maintained athletic performance in the thoroughbred race horse without incident,many actually improving performance while under my care.You can view the video of some of my patients at innovativeequinetherapy. Web page. The sad part of my story is when a patient changes barns or for some other reason stops treatment,the horse suffers immeasurably,either through reversal in athletic performance or unfortunately catastrophic breakdown. With these events occurring over a thirty year period with many participants,although not under scientific control situations. I believe if I had a scientific crew keeping recorded findings it would prove most catastrophic breakdowns occur because of Undiagnosed Muscular Dysfunction mostly beginning from dysfunctional muscle groups starting from above the knee and above the hock. Yours Truly. Steven Lore


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