During a span of five weeks this winter, 10 horses were euthanized after breaking down at Laurel Park, and the racing community was understandably alarmed. Why were these catastrophic events happening at a track with a previously good safety record?
People in the sport had reason to worry about its public image, too. In recent years, similar epidemics of breakdowns have occurred at Aqueduct, Del Mar and Arlington Park, and the tracks all received blistering coverage by the media. Aqueduct’s problems wound up on page one of the New York Times.
The Maryland thoroughbred industry often appears dysfunctional, but in this case the Maryland Racing Commission responded promptly to a tough issue. A committee analyzed the breakdowns, interviewed the horses’ trainers and studied the animals’ medical histories. It wasted no time producing a report on its findings and last week made some thoughtful recommendations.
Horse safety has become such a sensitive subject that nobody in racing likes to state one inescapable fact: Some fatalities are inevitable because thoroughbreds are fragile animals and the sport is dangerous. Fit, sound horses in the care of judicious trainers can break down, as Barbaro did in the 2006 Preakness, and there’s no way to prevent the tragedy. So a cluster of breakdowns may not have an underlying explanation; it may be a random concentration of bad events.
After the commission completed its study, chairman Bruce Quade said, “There was no ‘Eureka!’ finding.” The Safety and Welfare Committee’s report presented abundant data to verify that the Laurel racing strip was not to blame.
However, the report did note that six of the injured horses were running in $5,000 claiming races — the lowest level in Maryland. This might not be statistically significant, but common sense suggests that horses who have descended to the bottom of the class ladder have physical issues that make them vulnerable. The unlucky ones may fall into the hands of unscrupulous trainers who will risk running an infirm animal in order to win a purse.
So the Commission decided that it could best protect horses by reforming some of the rules of the claiming game:
●A claimed horse who does not run for 180 days may race once at the level of his purchase price with an exemption from being claimed. This gives a break to horsemen willing to take their time in bringing an animal back from an injury.
●A horse who races within 30 days of being claimed must start for a pricetag at least 25 percent higher than his purchase price. This rule would discourage trainers from dropping a horse in class and running him back quickly to get a fast return on their investment.
●The Commission is considering a rule that would void a claim if the claimed horse breaks down in a race — penalizing the trainer who may have run an infirm horse rather than the unlucky trainer who bought him.
●It is also considering a limit on the size of purses in low-level claiming races, having learned a lesson from Aqueduct’s experience. The New York track’s rash of breakdowns in 2012 occurred after casino money had boosted purses to unprecedented levels. Bottom-level $7,500 claimers were competing for as much as $40,000 — an irresistible incentive for unscrupulous trainers to do anything in order to get a cheap horse to deliver a maximum performance. The New York Times headline summed it up: “Big Purses, Sore Horses and Death.”
A comparable situation exists now in Maryland, where $5,000 claimers now compete for a purse of $17,500. Though horsemen will balk, of course, the Commission wants Maryland to emulate New York and reduce the ratio of the purse size to the claiming price.
It is encouraging that the Commission took the lead on this issue and handled it so thoughtfully. Maryland racing faces a slew of other problems, but the track’s management and its horsemen have such a long history of hostility that they can rarely agree on anything.
Since Quade became chairman last year, the Commission might play the role of a neutral arbiter. Unlike many of his predecessors, Quade is not a horse owner and has no stake in the game, except when he bets. He has been a racing fan since he started sneaking into Bowie Race Course as a teenager. He goes to the track two or three times a week, mostly at the Ocean Downs simulcasting facility. So he is well aware of Maryland’s problems, and he wants the Commission to get more involved in solving them.
One of his top priorities: “We need to do something to stimulate the state’s breeding industry.” Quade has made the controversial proposal that some of the money allotted to purses be paid as awards to owners of Maryland-bred horses. (Trainers aren’t thrilled with this idea, because it would reduce their cut from a winning purse.)
The health of the breeding industry is important to the entire sport. When Maryland’s thoroughbred farms were thriving, they provided many of the horses that gave the state a solid racing product. In 1991, more than 1,700 thoroughbreds were foaled in Maryland; by 2011, the number had dropped to 388. That’s one of the reasons that the quality of racing at Laurel has been so poor, with so many small fields and so many bottom-level claiming horses.
When it was suggested to Quade that the issue of breeder awards was not within the purview of the racing commission, he objected: “Hell, yes, it’s in the interest of the Racing Commission to look at everything that affects this industry.”
If that’s his philosophy, he won’t have any shortage of controversial projects to tackle.
For more columns by Andrew Beyer, visit washingtonpost.com/beyer.