Racing must examine itself in wake of another on-track death
A bad step.That's the most common explanation given in thoroughbred racing when a horse breaks down: It was just a bad step. A sad thing, but a fluke thing. An unpredictable thing, they say. An unpreventable thing, they insist. There is some truth to that. Sometimes, even the greatest of care cannot prevent a tragedy. The physics of race horses leaves their very existences fraught with peril: large, muscular animals running very fast on very thin legs. Bad steps do happen, and when they do, they can be lethal. But racing is taking its own bad steps if it thinks it can continue dismissing the fatal breakdowns of star animals with shoulder shrugs and some sympathetic words. If racing wants to act as though it is powerless to prevent -- or at least significantly limit -- these gruesome occurrences, it will run itself right out of business as a legitimate American sport.
Force on the horse
According to a May 2006 article in Science Daily about the physiology of a race horse, thoroughbreds -- who usually weigh upwards of 1,200 pounds -- put a remarkable amount of force on their legs."Anatomically speaking, they run on their toes," said Lawrence R. Soma, professor of anesthesia and clinical pharmacology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. "That makes them very fragile." According to the Science Daily article, a human would have to put all his weight on his middle finger to duplicate the proportion of weight a horse's hoof supports as it hits the ground.
In 2005, Steve Wood, superintendent of Del Mar's dirt track, told the San Diego Union-Tribune that a hoof strikes the ground with 5,000 pounds of pressure on a bone the size of a person's wrist. Del Mar has since changed to a synthetic track.
-- Pat Forde
Synthetic versus Dirt
A recent study showed that fatality rates for horses are nearly identical on synthetic and dirt tracks.
The report, released in March at the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Ky., showed a fatality rate of 1.96 deaths per 1,000 starts on dirt tracks and 1.95 deaths per 1,000 starts on synthetic surfaces since the survey began.
The survey included data from regulatory veterinarians representing 42 racetracks.
However, the survey also indicated that the number of injuries is significantly reduced on synthetic surfaces. The survey showed a ratio of one injury per 215 starts on synthetic tracks and one every 136 starts on dirt.
Dr. Jeff Blea, president of the Southern California Equine Foundation, said, according to the Thoroughbred Times, that reports of arthroscopic surgeries and condylar fracture repairs decreased by 15.8 percent and 19.6 percent, respectively, in Southern California in 2007. That covered the first full year of a synthetic track at Hollywood Park and the first meet with a synthetic track at Del Mar and the Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita.
Veteran trainer Nick Zito isn't convinced. In April, he told the New York Daily News: "I don't want to run on anything made from my attic."
Zito told the Daily News he thinks synthetic tracks yield fewer severe injuries but more tendon and soft-tissue injuries. Regardless, he prefers dirt to man-made tracks.
"I've been in this game since I was 15," Zito, 60, told the Daily News. "God made dirt and God made grass. I'm very upset about this business right now."
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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