Racing needs to look at breeding, medication, surfaces and more
Trainer Bob Baffert has won eight Triple Crown races, but he sat out the 2006 Preakness. At home in California, Bob and his wife, Jill, decided to have a party to watch Barbaro follow up his smashing Kentucky Derby victory with what figured to be a walkover in Baltimore.When that race was ruined by Barbaro's breakdown, the Bafferts swore off Triple Crown parties. Earlier this month, they broke their two-year moratorium and had a Derby bash. The result was the same sick feeling when the race ended with the on-track death of runner-up Eight Belles. What's the fastest way to ruin a racing party? An injured animal. Fastest way to ruin a sport, too. "Man," Baffert said, "it's bad luck. These horses are athletes, and athletes are going to get hurt. How do you prevent it? Nike hasn't come up with a shoe that prevents a sprained ankle." The problem is that when equine athletes get hurt, they need more than a tape job and an ice pack. The result is often a lethal injection in the neck. So are these injuries simply bad luck? Or are they the result of bad practices by the human beings who breed, train and race these animals?
Fillies vs Colts
Eight Belles is the latest in a string of fillies to pay a steep price for chasing the Triple Crown. Pat Forde takes a look at the pros and cons of the females running against the males. Story
That's been feverishly debated ever since Eight Belles shattered both front ankles at Churchill Downs and was euthanized on the track, just minutes after Big Brown's sensational Derby victory. Some in the business insist that the criticism is an overreaction from people unfamiliar with the basic risks associated with the sport. Others say that do-nothing attitude is precisely what has pushed racing to fringe-sport status.Dr. Greg Ferraro, director of the University of California-Davis' Center for Equine Health, said the overall trends in catastrophic injuries are improving in the past five to 10 years for a number of reasons. Among them are new technology developments that can detect injuries in their early stages: stress fractures that, if undiagnosed, can turn into catastrophic breakdowns.
BreedingHeavily raced thoroughbreds are about as rare as four-year college basketball superstars these days. According to the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, the average annual starts for an American thoroughbred in 1960 were 11.31. In 2006, the number was 6.37.
We've evolved a super-fast athlete. The yearling and 2-year-old market is for a fast, precocious horse, not for a durable horse who is going to race for years ... We've finally got people talking about it, and we've got to get a handle on it. That bloody elephant is out of the closet.
--Equine surgeon Wayne McIlwraith
MedicationIn many parts of the world, thoroughbreds are sustained by little more than organic material: hay and oats. Not so here. There are medications to deaden pain, medications to prevent pulmonary bleeding, medications to ease joint inflammation, medications (steroids) to add muscle. And those are just the legalized drugs. For years, racetracks have been rife with tales of horsemen using all manner of substances to juice their animals, from cocaine to cobra venom.
One of the culprits is drugs. You're running on chemical ability more than natural ability.
--Stone Farm owner Arthur Hancock III
Synthetic versus Dirt
Numbers compiled for the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, based in Lexington, Ky., seem to indicate the synthetic tracks are safer for horses.
The study of 60 tracks by a veterinarian in Florida, Dr. Mary Scollay, found a "25-percent reduction" in catastrophic fractures on synthetic tracks.
The figures indicate 1.47 deaths per 1,000 starts on synthetics and 2.07 deaths per 1,000 races on dirt tracks. Eight Belles died after the Kentucky Derby, which is run on a dirt track.
Another survey, 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, that 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.
The calendarIn bygone days when wealthy families bred racehorses for pleasure and not for profit, there was nearly as much satisfaction to be gained from winning races for older horses as there was from winning Triple Crown races. Today, everyone wants their horses to be stars by the delicate age of 3. "This day and age, everyone is focused on the 3-year-old," Ferraro said. That often means cranking the horses up at age 2 in time for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile -- a lucrative end-of-season race to win and one that carries some cachet at breeding time, but hardly a proven route to Kentucky Derby success. Last year Street Sense became the first Juvenile winner to also win the Derby.
The Triple Crown trashes horses. The road to the Triple Crown trashes horses. On the other hand, you can't blame people for going for it. If you want to encourage people to be patient with their horses, you've got to have rewards for older horses. You've got to have money for purses for those races.
Lack of central leadershipRacing has a pretty good idea what ails it. Fixing it is another matter. That's largely because there is no Roger Goodell or David Stern running the show, no national office where power is consolidated. Instead the sport is run by individual fiefdoms (Churchill Downs Inc., Magna Entertainment, New York Racing Association, California Horse Racing Board) protecting their own interests. Myopic leadership isn't helping. "I think the federal government needs to create some sort of new body to run this sport and keep everything above board," Hancock said. "What's an army without a general? We don't have a general. We have a lot of lieutenant colonels strutting around, acting like King Henry VIII or Nero or Napoleon. "If the army fails, you can blame it on this, that and the other. But if the army has a general, that's at least the first step." There are a lot of steps to cover before many fans can trust racing enough to watch the big events without a knot in their stomach, afraid of what might happen next. Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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