By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 18, 2008
BALTIMORE, May 17 -- The corner of West Rogers and Winner avenues, a stone's throw from the Pimlico Stakes barn, annually hosts a potpourri of weird commerce. There are continuous loops of teenagers carting alcohol in shopping carts, sunglasses-and-umbrella vendors (depending on the weather) and wandering salesmen displaying various crass T-shirts.
And around the corner from that marketplace Saturday stood three dozen protesters from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, one of the most visible signs of the commotion raised by Eight Belles's death two weeks ago at the Kentucky Derby.
When the filly broke both front ankles after finishing second in that race and was euthanized on the track, a fresh round of stories asking "Is horse racing in crisis?" filled newspapers, television broadcasts and Web sites. NBC added a roundtable discussion about Eight Belles's death and the issues it raised to Saturday's broadcast, the U.S. Jockey Club formed a panel to examine thoroughbred health and safety issues, and PETA stepped up its campaign to reform the sport, with a protest in Kentucky last week and another, its first protest of a Triple Crown race, on Saturday.
And yet one Preakness patron after another -- in the grandstand, infield and parking lot -- said that the issue of horse safety and the specter of death were not in their thoughts on this mild day of sundresses, cold cocktails and betting slips.
"It's a real tragedy, but it happens all the time," said Mike Hager, 51, of Greensboro, N.C., who said he was at his 30th Preakness. "Everyone looks at it when it happens in the big races. Your typical horse racer like me, I'll go to the next day. It's a tragedy, I hate it, I hope it never happens again, but I'm going to move on."
Eight Belles's death was just the latest in a string of high-profile breakdowns, from Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro's broken right rear ankle in the 2006 Preakness -- which eventually proved fatal -- to fatal injuries at the 2006 and 2007 Breeders' Cup races. While horses regularly suffer fatal injuries -- somewhat more than 1.5 deaths per 1,000 starts, according to studies -- industry veterans were wary of another high-profile public relations disaster Saturday.
"We're always going to be a little more on edge because it happened so recent," Frank Carulli, Pimlico's oddsmaker, said early Saturday afternoon. "It's in the back of your mind, yeah. [Industry officials] are hoping to see a brilliant performance by Big Brown, but in the back of their mind they're hoping something bad doesn't happen."
But in the grandstand, longtime players dismissed such talk, saying that media hype would not sully the brightest day in local racing. Stuart and Janet Murray, part owners of Celtic Innis, which ran fourth in the Maryland Sprint Handicap, spoke for many when discussing their reaction to Eight Belles's death.
"It's part of racing," Janet Murray said. "Very unfortunate, very sad, but it's part of the race."
Outside the track, fans who walked by the PETA protest were less circumspect. "Eat a hamburger!" they yelled at the protesters. "PETA ruins everything!" someone shouted. "Vegetarians suck!" someone else added, before a "PETA sucks" chant began. "I've got 50 on Big Brown collapsing," one taunter yelled. Others booed, or cursed.
Some were more charitable, expressing horror about the large posters showing the fallen Eight Belles, but the general mood was skepticism.
"I'm still here, and I watched it happen," Raymond Crouse, 22, said of Eight Belles's death.
"That happened in a famous race, but this happens regularly," said John Coffey of Brooklyn, a former horse owner. "It's a horrible thing, but it wouldn't change my opinion if it happens today."
No horses died at Pimlico on Saturday, but the protests will continue. PETA's proposals include a ban on all medications within a week of races, the prohibition of racing for horses before the age of 3, and the end of dirt-track racing. Their supporters Saturday clanged eight bells for much of the afternoon. They included young children -- "I didn't want horses or any other animals to be abused," said Harry Huntley, 10, who suggested his family attend the rally -- and more experienced protesters, such as PETA campaign coordinator Ashley Byrne, who said "people who love animals do not drug, whip and race them to death."
Amid the back-and-forth, there were many in the crowd who said they came to Pimlico merely to visit with friends and have a good time. Some had never been to a racetrack, and some hadn't heard of Eight Belles.
"I think if I saw a horse die, I'd be a little traumatized, I'm not going to lie," said Erin McCarville, 27, of Philadelphia. "But it didn't affect whether I came here. To be honest, I had already bought my ticket. What are you going to do?"