But the casual fan, the one the industry covets to grow its shrinking base, would not agree. Not the three people who approached a racing colleague in Boston the day after the Derby for the purpose of telling him they will never watch another horse race on TV.
Neither will the people who approached a trainer friend on Long Island, saying the same thing. And not the fan who button-holed me at the Albany Teletheater Wednesday to say that he was there only for the Pick Six carryovers in New York and Kentucky but he no longer would get caught up in Triple Crown hyperbole ever again.
If racing thinks that it will weather this storm the way it has all others, that roll of the dice will come up snake eyes. This is not about the rant of self-promoting PETA zealots waiting for their next raison d'etre. It is not like the old saw about members of a popular religion loving its dogs more than it loves its neighbors.
There are scores of issues. It starts with commercial breeders who breed for speed and looks at the expense of stamina. Outrunning the short-coupled pedigree is today’s rule, not the exception The modern race horse is fine, not course like his ancestors, more muscular in the hindquarters with bones lighter in the lower leg, that according to Dr. Gregory Ferraro, Director of the Center for Equine Health at the University of California, Davis.
“It isn’t about the horse anymore,” Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey said to me this week. “It’s about the money.”
Breeding a stouter race horse cannot be done overnight, and running a breeding farm is an expensive proposition. Consequently, commercial breeders have chosen to maintain the status quo because that’s what the market demands, the latest flavor of the month. Unless the thinking changes, the only racing left will be conducted along their paddock fences.
To show good faith, that they care about the horse and not about the money, consignors must help eliminate two-year-old breeze-up sales. Getting babies to run a furlong in :09 or :10 seconds for money, at best, raises greed to an art form. What would you call running that fast on bones that haven’t had a chance to knit, very young horses not conditioned to go that fast yet? Recklessness? Animal cruelty?
When it comes to racing freshman stock, racetracks on major circuits can be part of the solution, not the problem. Do two furlong races really prove anything? And what about 4-½ furlong sprints? What purpose do they serve beyond driving handle and showcasing the latest and greatest commercial stallion? These races do not improve the breed. In the interests of the horse and the sport, eliminate them.
This is not a call to do away with juvenile racing. That’s impractical and unnecessary. But tracks can stop writing these short baby races. If youngsters aren’t fit to race at least six furlongs, they should continue training until they are. Training remodels bone that helps deal with the stress of racing by making bone thicker, Ferraro stated.
Juvenile racing should start in July, not April. Condition books at major fall racetracks should include longer races for juveniles, particularly for the faster high-priced stock. All horses cannot be distance runners. But races of seven furlongs or more would require a horse to distribute his energy differently, take less pounding from those jack-rabbit sprint starts. It would force trainers to give their horses time to build wind and bone.
The argument that this wouldn’t work is cynical. Granted, it is more expensive in the short term. But it will mean that trainers will learn to become better horsemen, less reliant on speed and medication. For racetracks, field size equates to dollars. But either you’re part of the solution or the problem. Tracks can benefit the following year when well conditioned two-year-olds make better three-year-olds.
Tomorrow: Medication, Synthetic Tracks and More