Dr. Manuel Gilman, who made the leap from NYRA track veterinarian to the steward‘s stand, was correct when he warned that the proliferation of permissive medication would be the end of quality racing as we know it. Time has proven Gilman prescient.
The use of race day medication and steroids must be eliminated. Medication is not allowed in most major jurisdictions throughout the world, so why here? Analgesics such as Phenylbutazone masks pain and can cause irreparable harm. Lasix can mask everything else.
The industry devotes much of its diligence attempting to keep up designer drug developments but turns a blind eye to race day medication. Most debilitating injuries occur when earlier problems go undetected of are allowed to fester. There’s absolutely no evidence this was the case in Derby 134, but that’s not the issue.
There is conflicting data to support the observation that modern commercial breeding produces inherently weaker stock. U C Davis and Penn’s College of Veterinary Medicine concur that no correlation exists between breeding for speed and unsoundness. Yet in the last half century average starts per horse have been cut virtually in half, from more than 11 per year to just over six. How is that fact reconciled exactly?
Before more jurisdictions knee-jerk toward a wider installation of synthetic surfaces, additional study is needed. While preliminary evidence shows that fewer fractures occur on all-weather surfaces, there are no statistics reflecting the greater number of soft tissue injuries seen, according to empirical data supplied by horsemen.
Some jockeys have ridden on synthetic surfaces wearing face masks for fear of inhaling any potentially dangerous by-products. Some Polytrack surfaces have gotten dramatically slower in the warmth of the California sun. Extremely cold has also proven problematical in Canada.
It appear the chemical composition of synthetic surfaces may be altered in some way by extremes in temperature. What are the short and long term side effects on horses that inhale this foreign substance? The jury on this could be out for some time. How long did it take scientists to identify asbestos as a carcinogen?
Never mind the havoc that synthetic surfaces wreak on horseplayers. Even Keeneland was forced to admit that some bettors probably stayed away from their product at the recently concluded spring meet. And they have a vested interest in Polytrack as a product.
Better track maintenance appears a preferable alternative to ersatz dirt. But that notion likely will meet resistance from the tracks because synthetics are cheaper to maintain and keep fields from being negatively impacted by foul weather.
In the last two decades, rolling and sealing wet tracks has become a commonly accepted practice. But while it allows for fasting drying it also renders the cushion less forgiving. Since fans bet more on fast tracks, floating is more about money than safety.
Jockeys seem to prefer sealed tracks to those with standing water on top. Perhaps track superintendents can find ways to aid nature rather than create an artificial solution by trotting out the heavy equipment. Further study of a horse’s natural habitat is requisite.
On the subject of jockey safety, they must be allowed to continue carrying whips. A lighter, softer model like those used in some foreign jurisdictions seems a viable alternative, and stricter enforcement of existing rules regarding misuse of the whips is mandatory. Jockeys should have whips to help insure their own safety.
In good conscience, the industry must ask itself if less than two fatalities per thousand horses is acceptable collateral damage to conduct a sport. Considering that the pressure a running horse puts on its hooves has been likened to a human supporting himself by standing on one finger, it’s a credit to horsemen that the figure is as “low” as it is.
Casual fans tune in to watch the Derby, the Preakness, not so much, and the Belmont Stakes hardly at all except when a Triple Crown is at stake. And it seems that only a true superstar can whet a Breeders’ Cup appetite in the same manner the spring classics do. But since the 2005 Breeders‘ Cup, viewers have seen or heard of five fatal breakdowns. At that rate, how long will it be before even true fans lose heart?
The dominance of Big Brown is not the sole reason only one other Derby horse will soldier on to Baltimore. Avoiding the crown’s second jewel, like watching horses outrun speed-infused pedigrees, is routine for the connections of high class Derby-aged stock. Consequently, until stamina and soundness are bred back in, the duration of the Triple Crown must be lengthened.
For four years, we’ve been advocating a schedule consisting of the first Saturday in May, first Saturday in June, and July 4th, in effect making horse racing a national holiday. On balance, the modern high class thoroughbred needs, at minimum, four weeks between starts to approximate peak performance. Agree or not, today’s Triple Crown schedule is anachronistic and, as such, fraught with peril.
By allowing for further maturity, greater participation of Derby horses throughout the series, and allowing late-developing individuals to join the group, a longer Triple Crown schedule would not only maintain the degree of difficulty but actually might add to it. Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed and all the others can rest easy.
Trainer Larry Jones and jockey Gabriel Saez, wise beyond his 20 years, did nothing wrong. Neither did owner Rick Porter, whose ultimate decision it was to race a filly against 19 colts in an atmosphere charged by 157,000 julep-fueled fans. Fillies run against colts all the time elsewhere, goes the mantra, but mainly on forgiving grass.
The issue of fillies vs. colts on today’s harder, faster surfaces is problematical. Given the brittle nature of the modern horse, the injury masking that permissive medication allows and the added stress of competing at the highest level, owners of fillies should reconsider whether a place in the record book is really worth it.
Fillies need not “prove something” by taking on males. It’s a sporting gesture only in the abstract. Racing all out on the fence alongside Foolish Pleasure was anathema to Ruffian. Rags To Riches never was the same after her triumphant Belmont struggle with Curlin--and she was a robust specimen. Subsequently she was forced to miss the Breeders‘ Cup and was retired this year when she no longer could withstand training.
In some part, Eight Belles lost her life because she ran the race of her young life. Even as Saez was trying to take care of her in deep stretch and beyond, the filly kept trying to catch Big Brown. That’s what separates very good horses from the common ones; they keep trying, hard. Practitioners and fans alike need to care for the horses that care for us by doing our bidding.
The industry no longer can afford its deniability. It can’t make bad steps disappear, but it is morally bound to try, hard, to do for the animals that allow those tethered to them to bask in their reflected glory while enjoying and, in some cases, enriching themselves.
American racing must take stock of the way it conducts itself and do something before government, responding to public outcry, has a notion it can do it better, or even ban it altogether. The paradigm must change. The time for true reform is at hand.
All segments of the industry must share in this, taking positive steps to show that it truly cares about the inevitable bad ones. Anything less is indefensible. Anything less would be criminal.