For Whom Is Eight Belles's Toll?

Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown will try to win the second leg of the Triple Crown -- the Preakness Stakes -- on Saturday in Baltimore.
Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown will try to win the second leg of the Triple Crown -- the Preakness Stakes -- on Saturday in Baltimore. (By Garry Jones -- Associated Press)
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By Andrew Beyer
Monday, May 12, 2008

If people concerned about the safety of thoroughbreds had their way, the Preakness might be a race for 4-year-olds instead of 3-year-olds. It would be run on a synthetic surface instead of dirt. The jockeys would be forbidden to carry whips.

These are among the many proposals put forth since the filly Eight Belles broke down and was euthanized after the Kentucky Derby. Even with the second leg of the Triple Crown just five days away, the sport is still preoccupied with the filly's death and stung by the harsh criticism it has taken on the issue of equine safety. The industry knows it has to do something, but what?

One of the most common responses to the breakdown of Eight Belles has come from such diverse sources as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and The Washington Post's Sally Jenkins, author of "Funny Cide." It is the argument that the sport places too much stress on young, undeveloped horses by racing them at age 2 and by subjecting them to the rigors of the Triple Crown series at 3. The evidence of two fatalities in the past six Triple Crown races -- Barbaro in the 2006 Preakness and Eight Belles in the Derby -- seems to support this theory.

But top equine veterinarians insist it is a fallacy that thoroughbreds race at too young an age. Rick Arthur, equine medical director of the California Horse Racing Board, said that horses need exertion as 2-year-olds because it develops their bones. "It's beneficial for that process to occur as the horse goes through the maturation process," he said. "The 3-year-old is a mature horse in terms of his bone development."

Larry Bramlage, the vet who regularly appears on national racing telecasts, said ample statistics refute the argument that young thoroughbreds should be handled with kid gloves. "Horses that train as 2-year-olds earn more money and make more starts than horses who don't train until they're 3."

The death of Eight Belles also brought calls for more tracks to install synthetic surfaces. Preliminary evidence suggests that the rate of fatal accidents is lower on synthetic tracks than on dirt (though some trainers say that certain types of injuries have increased.)

Daily Racing Form columnist Jay Hovdey last week made a well-reasoned case for synthetics that goes beyond the statistics on breakdowns. One major reason for the fragility of American thoroughbreds is breeders' obsession with speed; they don't care about durability when they produce a racehorse. This is a seemingly insoluble problem because nobody can legislate the private decisions of breeders. However, synthetic tracks have proved to be much less speed-favoring than dirt, and in some cases they have had a distinctly anti-speed bias. If all racetracks adopted synthetic surfaces, Hovdey argued, breeders would have to produce a different type of thoroughbred.

The drawback to this vision, of course, is that horse racing might not be much of a sport if speed became a liability. The thoroughbreds who make the game exciting are the brilliant ones such as Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown -- not the plodders who often win on Polytrack.

Even if synthetic tracks do reduce the number of catastrophic injuries, it is a specious argument to suggest that dirt racing surfaces are the root cause of the safety problem. There was no perceived epidemic of breakdowns in the United States 30 years ago; dirt tracks seemed safe enough then. And the rate of breakdowns is not a serious issue in other nations where racing is conducted on dirt. In the past six years at Maronas, Uruguay, there have been only 30 fatal accidents from 46,701 starters. That is about one-third that rate of fatalities in the United States. Yet many people in the industry have hastened to blame dirt tracks for breakdowns. When a series of fatalities marred the 2006 Del Mar meeting, the California Horse Racing Board reacted by mandating that the state's tracks replace dirt surfaces with synthetic surfaces. Perhaps my view is too cynical, but I believe that the industry is focusing on this peripheral issue because it can't face up to the real one.

American horses are much less durable than they used to be, and they are less durable than their counterparts in other countries. So what makes contemporary U.S. racing different? We all know the one-word answer to that question: drugs.

In the 1970s, American racing adopted the policy of "permissive medication," legalizing drugs that are banned in the rest of the racing world. The administration of the diuretic Lasix and the painkiller Butazolidin became standard at every U.S. racetrack. Other commonly used drugs -- such as corticosteroids injected in the joints of ailing animals -- allow them to run without pain and surely contribute to breakdowns. The use of anabolic steroids puts extra muscle on horses, forcing their bones to carry more weight and absorb more of an impact when they hit the ground.

The rationale for the liberalization of drug rules in the United States was that medication would help horses cope better with the stress of year-round racing. But it didn't. The average American horse has made fewer and fewer starts per year since the 1970s, suggesting the existence of a vicious cycle: Unsound horses who succeed with the aid of medications go to stud and propagate more unsound horses.

Yet despite the evidence that the U.S. medication policy has been a failure, horsemen have regularly resisted most efforts to curb the use of medications. American racing is addicted to drugs, and American horses will never again be fueled by hay, oats and water alone. But until the industry faces the medication issue seriously, all of its efforts to address equine safety will be misguided.

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