Commentary

What's going on here?

Updated: May 17, 2008, 7:13 PM ET
By Randy Moss | Special to ESPN.com

Keeping a proper perspective can be tricky, indeed. The death of Eight Belles was the most tragic event in the 134-year history of the Kentucky Derby. But it is not a tragedy on the scale of Saturday's cyclone in Myanmar, or even the thousands of children abused daily. Jockey Gabriel Saez was not at fault, and thoroughbred racing does not rank alongside bullfighting and dog fighting on the animal cruelty index.

But perspective cuts both ways.

And pretending the Eight Belles breakdown happened in the third race at Charles Town and ignoring the sport's problems would be as foolish as PETA's call to abolish racing entirely.

This time, post-Derby calls for reform cannot be dismissed as knee-jerk responses from do-gooders prone to overreaction.

Dr. Larry Bramlage, one of the country's preeminent equine veterinarians, told the Wall Street Journal that racing is at a "crisis state."

Jim Squires, former editor of the Chicago Tribune and breeder of Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos, wrote in a New York Times blog that "unless the thoroughbred industry stops demoralizing the TV audiences with tragic endings to its most important and widely watched races, it will continue to make public enemies and slide further into oblivion."

Arthur Hancock, breeder of Derby winners Gato Del Sol, Sunday Silence and Fusaichi Pegasus, recommends federal intervention into racing, calling the sport a "rudderless ship" and claiming that, "The way we are going, we will end up on the rocks."

What's going on here? By far the biggest problem is that the thoroughbreds the sport is producing -- which by nature's design are blessed with high speed but cursed with spindly legs -- are without question less sturdy than ever before. Worse yet, horses in high-profile races -- including other recent televised victims Barbaro, George Washington and Pine Island -- are especially at risk because they are the fastest of the breed with a fierce determination to win that pushes their brittle legs to the limit.

This increasing fragility didn't happen overnight, but gradually over decades. Trainers have long privately complained that their horses are falling apart. Twenty years ago, the late Woody Stephens told me the breed had begun to weaken noticeably during the end of his seven-decade career.

Stephens once trained for aristocratic families that dominated the sport by breeding and racing their own horses rather than buying and selling at auctions. These owners loved the game for its sporting aspects as well as its social standing, and derived much of their racing revenue from purse money earned by winning races. They had an incentive to produce runners that could succeed not only at age 3 in the Triple Crown, but also at 4 and 5 in handicap races nearly as prized.

Today, the sport is controlled by commercial breeding operations whose financial clout dwarfs racing purses. Horses are bought and sold like stock-market commodities -- often with pedigrees chosen for the express purpose of commanding million-dollar bids at yearling and 2-year-old sales -- and can be worth upwards of $20 million as stallion prospects with victories in classic races. The best racehorses are so much more valuable in the breeding shed than on the track, they usually are retired after their 3-year-old seasons and before a lack of durability becomes a major issue. Recent champions Smarty Jones and Afleet Alex never even made it past the Triple Crown series due to injury, but their owners nonetheless reaped a stud bonanza.

Cigar ended his career in 1996 with a North American record $9.99 million in racetrack earnings. The same year, a 13-year-old named Storm Cat earned his investors approximately $50 million in the stud barn.

For these reasons, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is now an eight-figure stallion syndication deal and a premature retirement, and breeders have been forced to oblige and emphasize brilliance over soundness.

"We could start tomorrow producing horses that are sounder and a little slower," one breeder explained. "Unfortunately, no one would buy them."

Another breeder said last week that the American prototype currently in demand is a faster thoroughbred with shorter cannon bones and smaller feet. As a result, the force of impact of their legs pounding onto racing surfaces is concentrated over a lesser area and therefore is more intense and potentially damaging, especially as speed increases.

Still another dilemma is the shrinking of the gene pool among thoroughbreds. Every starter in this year's Kentucky Derby traced back to legendary 1953 3-year-old champion Native Dancer. A renowned geneticist recently studied thoroughbreds and was stunned at the lack of worldwide diversity, predicting a physical meltdown of the breed without an infusion of heartier equine genes - perhaps even from a non-thoroughbred source.

Reversing these accumulated trends will take both time and a willingness to consider drastic measures. The status quo seems a recipe for disaster, but since much of this involves supply-and-demand economics, exactly how can changes be accomplished?

Does The Jockey Club -- the sport's registrar -- have the authority to disqualify prospective stallions and broodmares that don't meet a soundness benchmark?

If the world's racing jurisdictions required sires and dams to be at least 5 or 6 years old before producing a registered thoroughbred, would the tide swing toward durability? Or would this simply result in more infirm horses staying in training and breaking down at later ages?

WinStar Farm's Bill Casner believes that if synthetic surfaces continue to proliferate and eventually dominate the landscape, their tendencies to favor stretch runners may help swing the market back toward stamina.

In the meantime, a handful of options to help lessen the crisis need to be considered.

Horses running in major races should undergo more thorough pre-race physical examinations; most deal with assorted ailments, and even the most conservative trainers routinely wrestle with the dilemma of when to push their horses and when to ease up. One intriguing possibility involves nuclear scintigraphy, a scanning tool presently used to identify future trouble areas in bones. These nuclear scans have drawbacks and limitations, but unlike MRIs don't require horses to undergo general anesthesia.

The recent trend toward less raceday medication and improved testing procedures -- spearheaded by Dr. Scot Waterman and the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium -- needs to be strongly supported and even accelerated. It can be argued that permissive medication policies pushed through by horsemen in the 1970s have exacerbated the unsoundness of the breed. Raceday medications should be completely banned, including all steroids and even the diuretic Lasix, whose use as an anti-bleeding medication has spiraled out of control. Additionally, Lasix is suspected by many of diluting the urine of horses to an extent that it can mask the presence of illicit performance-enhancing drugs in postrace tests.

"Drugs must be banned if we are going to survive as an industry," Hancock wrote, "and if thoroughbreds will survive as a robust breed."

Hancock believes the Horse Racing Act of 1978, which rejuvenated the industry by giving tracks permission to take bets on simulcast signals sent across state lines, could become the bargaining chip the federal government needs to enforce widespread drug reform. Racing is too fragmented to police itself, Hancock says. He suggests that states which don't fall in line with reform could be threatened with the crushing financial blow of losing simulcasting privileges.

Studies of synthetic surfaces must continue; if they indeed prove to dramatically reduce catastrophic injuries (and if maintenance problems can be overcome), the sport will have little choice but to embrace them.

And although Saez's whip almost certainly had nothing to do with the fate of Eight Belles, state racing commissions should bow to public sentiment and immediately enact rules to abolish the whip or dramatically limit its use. The sentiment that jockeys need whips to control their mounts may be overrated -- Jerry Bailey thinks so -- and nothing contradicts the claim that racehorses love their work more than the sight of them being beaten through the stretch. In Europe, limits were long ago enacted restricting the number of times a horse can be hit, and the force with which a jockey can deliver a blow. In Australia, lighter whips are used that inflict less discomfort. But instead of asking our stewards to count whip strokes, perhaps we should raise the bar one step higher and do away with whips altogether.

These aren't new ideas. Racecaller Trevor Denman has been an outspoken opponent of whips for as long as I can remember, and many within the sport have sounded the alarm about thoroughbred infirmity and medication since well before Barbaro.

Another concept I have long opposed on grounds of tradition -- until now -- is changing the spacing of Triple Crown races. The longstanding schedule that puts the Preakness two weeks after the Derby, and the Belmont three weeks following the Preakness, was no concern during the days when horses were more physically capable. In fact, many horses would run in the Derby and Preakness and squeeze in another race prior to the Belmont. But those days are long gone. HRTV's Stephen Nagler makes a compelling case that tradition never stopped the NFL from moving the goalposts, nor the NBA from adopting a shot clock and three-point line, nor major-league baseball from instituting night games and (at least in the American League) the designated hitter.

Putting a full month between the Triple Crown races would not cheapen the accomplishment of a sweep; rather, it might make the feat even tougher. This year, only one of the 18 Derby losers capable of running in the Preakness is actually being sent to Baltimore. Some of that reluctance has to do with Big Brown's dominant Derby victory. But if the Preakness was four weeks from the Derby instead of two, its starting field might include several other Derby also-rans.

Those who follow thoroughbred racing passionately know it isn't inherently cruel.

Two women on our TV crew, reporter Jeannine Edwards and associate producer Joan Ciampi, are longtime equestrians and animal lovers. We have often joked that if a dog ran across a busy highway and caused a fiery 12-car pileup, their first question would be, "Did the dog make it?" Jeannine and Joan can often be found on backstretches alongside owners and trainers, and could never condone a sport that mistreated their beloved horses.

But casual fans repeatedly subjected to the sickening sight of horses snapping leg bones in major races are viewing the sport with a suspicious eye, and we can't blame them.

The Jockey Club's recent announcement of a Thoroughbred Safety Committee is a step in the right direction, but immediate action must follow to assure the American public that deadly injuries to racing stars aren't simply shrugged off as "part of the game" - even if the God-given delicate framework of the thoroughbred means such incidents can never be completely eliminated.

Overreaction is fraught with peril. We shouldn't bulldoze the house just because water begins pouring through the roof.

But in this case, a lack of reaction is just as damning. If racing ignores the rainstorm in its living room, the roof may eventually collapse.

Randy Moss has been an analyst for ESPN/ABC Sports thoroughbred racing coverage since 1999.

Randy Moss

Horse Racing
Before joining ESPN in 1999 as the network's chief horse-racing analyst, Randy Moss covered the sport for more than two decades for the Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star Telegram and the Arkansas Democrat.