Commentary

Racing needs to look at breeding, medication, surfaces and more

Updated: May 17, 2008, 6:29 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

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?

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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.

[+] EnlargeRacing Protest
AP Photo/Lexington Herald-Leader/Jenn AckermanProtesters at the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority's headquarters questioned horse racing safety.
But America knows only what it sees, and lately it has seen a number of beautiful animals in agony.

"The trend is dropping," Ferraro said. "Unfortunately, that doesn't do you much good when it happens to a high-profile horse in a nationally televised race."

As equine surgeon Wayne McIlwraith, a past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, said, "The reaction is very strong, but as I've been taught in media training, perception is reality. So we've got to take heed."

What cannot be debated is this: Horses are suffering fatal injuries on the sport's biggest days at an unacceptable rate for most casual fans to stomach.

If you watch thoroughbred racing only four days a year -- the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont and Breeders' Cup -- you've had a 50 percent chance of witnessing an ultimately lethal breakdown over the past 10 big Saturdays, starting with the 2005 Cup. Funfair was put down during that event. Then Barbaro suffered his injury in '06, eventually losing his long fight for survival. Pine Island died in the '06 Cup, and George Washington in '07. Now Eight Belles has brought death to the Derby.

A lot of people still watch on the big race days. This year's Derby drew an 8.8 Nielsen rating -- about even with Sunday at the Masters, and dwarfing the NBA playoff competition. But will fans keep tuning in if carnage is a 50-50 proposition?

"Something's wrong," said Stone Farm owner Arthur Hancock III, a fourth-generation Kentucky horseman who has bred three Kentucky Derby winners: Gato Del Sol, Sunday Silence and Fusaichi Pegasus. "I remember as a boy, these kinds of things didn't happen as often … If we're going to make it [as a sport], something's got to change."

Change is in the air, as the sport is goaded by public outcry to address the issues that at least theoretically could be contributing to these high-profile deaths. How long before that change hits the ground -- and what form it takes -- remains to be seen. But here are the pressing general topics related to thoroughbred welfare and safety:

Breeding

Heavily 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

Some will say that's the result of choosy training, since there are enough big paydays that horses don't need to run all the time to make money for their connections. But most people in the industry will attribute the decline in starts to a belief that thoroughbreds simply cannot stand up to much wear and tear these days, having been bred (and inbred) over generations for more speed and not for durability.

"We've evolved a super-fast athlete," McIlwraith said. "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."

The problem is compounded by the fact that many of those precocious horses who break down are quickly sent to the breeding shed, where they pass along genetic infirmities to their progeny.

Hancock said the old rule of thumb for his father, Claiborne Farm magnate Bull Hancock, was that every stallion sent to the shed should have made at least 25 career racing starts -- that benchmark proved the horse's durability. Today that number would seem outrageous for almost all high-dollar stallions.

The last Kentucky Derby winner to race 25 times was Strike the Gold, who was retired to stud in 1993. The only Derby winner this decade to compile more than 14 career races was 2003 champ Funny Cide -- a gelding, and thus of no use in breeding.

"If you diminish the number of starts, it stands to reason there's going to be more catastrophic injuries," Hancock said. "I believe the chickens are coming home to roost, sadly enough."

Hancock isn't even convinced that racing's disjointed hierarchy wants to know everything that ails its animals. He said he pushed 20 years ago for a notation on foals' registry papers with The Jockey Club that would indicate if there was minor corrective surgery on a yearling's legs prior to sale. Nobody listened, he said.

"I don't like to cause a lot of crap, but it's the damn truth," Hancock said.

The greater truth is that breeders are forced to respond to the market demands if they want to make a profit. So they're creating more speed horses with short careers, at the risk of furthering the brittleness of the breed.

In an effort to document which sires are producing the hardiest horses -- and which are not -- The Jockey Club has developed a durability list. It ranks a stallion's offspring by the percentage of foals that make it to the racetrack, a measuring stick of the soundness that sire is passing along.

The numbers speak to the trend. Almost none of the top-dollar sires are among the leaders in percentage of foals sent to race. Only one of the top 50 in that category comes with six-figure stud fees: Distorted Humor ($300,000 fee per live foal) was sending 82 percent of his progeny to the races, according to 2007 data.

Compare that with Unbridled's Song, the sire of Eight Belles, who had sent 73 percent of his foals to the races and ranked well down the list. Unbridled's Song was a fast and precocious horse whose career was compromised by foot and leg issues -- just as were many offspring of 1990 Derby winner Unbridled. Yet Unbridled's Song is worth $150,000 per live foal, and 17 of his offspring have sold at auction for at least $1 million apiece during his stallion career. The market is there for fast and precocious, even with risk attached.

"The problem is, the poor breeder is responding to demand," McIlwraith said. "They've said, 'If the market will pay us for durability, we'll breed for it.' We've got to educate people to the fact that we may be breeding fragility."

Medication

In 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

"American racing is addicted to drugs," wrote racing columnist Andrew Beyer in The Washington Post this week. "Until the industry faces the medication issue seriously, all of its efforts to address equine safety will be misguided."

There has been progress in that area, as rules have become more streamlined and uniform from state to state and technology has improved.

"We're getting better at drug testing," Ferraro said. "The penalties are getting stiffer, and the chances of avoiding detection are less."

It hasn't been a complete deterrent. High-profile trainer Patrick Biancone is currently serving a one-year suspension after cobra venom -- used as a numbing agent -- was found in his Kentucky barn.

Most medications are used to get horses to the track despite their infirmities -- and to win despite them as well. And the more the horses win, the more they're worth to breeders. Infirmities and all.

"One of the culprits is drugs," Hancock said. "You're running on chemical ability more than natural ability."

Racing surface

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.

-- ESPN.com

This has been a major issue since California ordered all its tracks to go to synthetic surfaces by 2007. Two tracks in Kentucky also have gone to a Polytrack surface.

The result in California has been a demonstrable downturn in catastrophic injuries. That's provoked some to call for synthetic tracks nationwide, and others to say that's wildly premature.

"I think some people have looked at it as a panacea for all our problems, and it's not a panacea," said McIlwraith, who spoke at a Canadian symposium on track surfaces this week. "But it's certainly an improvement. They're a piece of the puzzle, put it that way.

"We're eventually going to reach a point where we can say, 'The track's not the problem.' Then we can look at other causes."

Many people say synthetic surfaces have improved some bad dirt surfaces in California, but are no safer than the better dirt tracks elsewhere. Churchill Downs' surface is routinely praised for its consistency, quality and ability to handle water, but some trainers would like to see an upgrade in the equipment used to maintain the track.

Another potential advantage of the artificial surfaces is that they seem to inhibit the effectiveness of speed horses. There is less bolting to the lead and running away with a race at torrid early fractions. Some have surmised that a racing surface that mitigates the speed advantage might ultimately sway the breeding pendulum back in favor of the more durable horse.

But how long would it take something like that to have an effect?

"You don't turn a big ship around like that, bam, in the middle of the ocean," Hancock said.

The calendar

In 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.

--McIlwraith

Still, the emphasis is on having your horse in the big race on the first Saturday in May. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas made himself a Hall of Famer with that approach, selling clients on early glory and winning 13 Triple Crown races. Baffert followed much the same model on his way to three Derby wins, four Preaknesses and one Belmont.

But the cost can be high. The attrition rate going through the Derby prep races and coming out of the Derby is astonishing. There is an excellent chance that many of the 20 contestants in the 2008 Derby will never be heard from again. It's like that every year.

And the Triple Crown itself requires horses to run three major races in a five-week span.

"The Triple Crown trashes horses," McIlwraith said. "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 leadership

Racing 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.