Barbaro's injury should advance cause of track safety
BALTIMORE -- On the morning after the disaster at Pimlico, thoroughbred racing did what thoroughbred racing does best.
It shrugged and sounded helpless.
"It's human nature after something like this to try to point the finger somewhere, at someone, and say, 'That's the cause, that's the reason,' " said Joe DeFrancis, chief executive officer of the Maryland Jockey Club. "As sad as it is, accidents like this are part of the game."
The accident he referred to, of course, was heavy favorite Barbaro's horrific breakdown shortly after the start of the 131st Preakness Stakes on Saturday. The colt underwent seven hours of surgery on his broken right hind leg Sunday and was standing in an intensive care unit. Dr. Dean Richardson, who performed the surgery, said Barbaro has a "50-50" chance of survival because of the risk of infection.
DeFrancis is right about one thing: The stress huge and powerful race horses place on their thin lower legs is, in and of itself, a threat to their safety. But here's the problem with shrugging off tragedy and trotting out the "it's part of the game" line: It doesn't do anything to help fix the problem.
And if there is one thing horse racing has proven completely inept at, it's fixing its own problems. This is the ultimate can't-do sport: bereft of a national governing body and generally lacking in leadership, cohesiveness, vision, adaptability or a sound plan for connecting to the masses.
While racing execs are shrugging off Barbaro's breakdown, horrified casual fans are tuning out. Those who follow the sport three Saturdays a year are quite likely to follow it zero Saturdays from now on after watching Barbaro's grisly injury. If it's simply part of the game, hey, the viewing public can simply find another game to watch -- one in which potential death and dismemberment are not common side effects.
*Barbaro, 2006 Preakness
*Charismatic, 1999 Belmont
Union City, 1993 Preakness
Prairie Bayou, 1993 Belmont
Go For Wand, 1990 Breeders' Cup Distaff
Mr. Nickerson, 1990 Breeders' Cup Sprint
Shaker Knit, 1990 Breeders' Cup Sprint
Timely Writer, 1982 Jockey Club Gold Cup
Ruffian, 1975 match race vs. Foolish Pleasure
Black Hills, 1959 Belmont
* -- survived
DeFrancis drew an analogy to auto racing, saying that the potential for tragedy is there as well. But here's where that analogy falls short: When Dale Earnhardt was killed at Daytona in 2001, NASCAR didn't just shrug. It reacted, changed its safety regulations -- and became a safer sport. Lethal crashes are down since then.
That's the difference between a smart, assertive sport and an inert sport. Doing nothing only guarantees that the same injuries will keep happening.
The biggest problem horse racing has is a chronic inability to keep its star performers around long enough for the public to latch on to them. And the biggest reason is leg injuries. They happen far too often.
Before Barbaro became the star of his generation, the hot name was Stevie Wonderboy, winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile as a 2-year-old and the Derby favorite entering the new year. He was injured while training in February, terminating his Triple Crown run.
That happens every single year, without fail. At least one -- and usually several -- of the top 3-year-olds fall by the wayside on the trail to the Derby because of injury.
For a diminished sport that needs every fan it can get, shrugging at all the broken bones and bowed tendons is not an ideal response.
There is something racing can do to address the problem: It can seriously and aggressively study widespread installation of Polytrack, the synthetic racing surface that gained popularity in Europe, is establishing a beachhead in North America -- and has a reputation for being safer than dirt. Polytrack is formed from polypropeylene fibers, recycled rubber and silica sand covered in a wax coating.
The data is far from complete on Polytrack, but early indications are that breakdowns are dramatically reduced on that surface. According to Turfway, there were three catastrophic breakdowns during the first meet on Polytrack. The year before Polytrack was installed there were 24.
"When the Keeneland boys came and talked to me about that [installing Polytrack], I was a little concerned," said Nick Zito, one of the nation's leading trainers and a winner of multiple Triple Crown races. "I was a little reluctant ... But when they talked to me about safety, they stopped me right in my tracks. That was the end of the discussion.
"This sport needs to catch a break. Look, you don't want to see every track go to Polytrack -- I can't see the Kentucky Derby run on Polytrack, can you? -- but you want to keep the animals safe."
DeFrancis pointed out that Magna Entertainment Corp., which owns several tracks in North America, including Pimlico, has spent "tens of millions of dollars" on its racing surfaces. He said the right things about Polytrack, but didn't sound like a believer.
"We certainly value any technological innovation that can make the sport safer," he said. "I think the jury is still out on whether Polytrack does that."
There are other reservations about Polytrack. Will it provide a uniformly fair and consistent racing surface? Will its slightly bouncy nature lead to a different kind of injury?
But the biggest fear in some corners is that it will rewrite the record books and render several landmark times meaningless. Kentuckians, for instance, would have a collective conniption fit if Secretariat's 1-minute, 59 2/5-second Kentucky Derby record were ever broken by some horse racing on a souped-up, rubberized surface.
But if anything, the Turfway races have yielded slower times, not faster, than those on dirt. So the hallowed marks could remain -- and if they need to add a new section to the record books for the Polytrack Era, is that such a fundamental tragedy?
It certainly would be far less tragic than what happened to Barbaro on Saturday in the Preakness.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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