Following a steeplechase season in which four horses died and many others suffered physical problems racing in Maryland and Virginia, a number of veterinarians, owners and jockeys insist that dry, hot weather was mostly to blame for what they believe to be a freak year in the sport.
Most also said the conditions were not considered harsh enough to postpone or cancel the weekly races, generally run from March until May in the spring and September through November in the fall.
Dr. William Moyer, associate professor of sports medicine at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine, who has done a study on racing deaths, said yesterday that he "would love to see" the cancellation of races if conditions are poor, "especially if it is too hot or humid."
Moyer said he has known steeplechase organizers to change meet dates because of too much rain -- the "other extreme." But the postponement or cancellation because of dry weather, he said, is "just as important, if not more, than the other."
Dr. Charles Vail, president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, said that from the statistical increase in deaths and accidents, "you have to look at the weather and physical condition of the horses . . . presuming there have been thorough prerace examinations."
Vail said stress incurred in a race can "tip it over" -- meaning it can be a factor if a horse has a heart condition or bleeding problems. Vail also said that "heat exhaustion could be related to leg injuries."
But many owners and jockeys contend that injuries or deaths should not occur if the horse is in good condition -- despite weather conditions or demands of the sport. Most feel owners and trainers take full precaution before racing a horse.
Dr. John Fisher, a Philadelphia trainer who has several horses racing on the Maryland-Virginia circuit, said, "In England, sometimes they cancel races because of conditions, but in this country racing is so limited the chance to race again might not be until the next year.
"I don't think it has been so hot or the ground so hard that I wouldn't have raced a horse (this spring). I haven't seen any (meets) that are worth canceling."
On April 28, Fally's Kid, a 9-year-old bay gelding ridden by Joe Cassidy, hit the 19th and final fence and collapsed in the three-mile open timber Potomac Chase Challenge Trophy in Potomac. With an intravenous tube inserted into his jugular vein to restore body fluids and ice piled upon his body to lower his body temperature, Fally's Kid was revived and able to stand 25 minutes later.
"The horse did fine -- with a little luck," said race veterinarian Chester Anderson. "We had a pretty hot day, and the combination of heat and fatigue was the reason the horse collapsed."
Anderson attributed hot weather in the final month of racing this spring to the increase in racing accidents. "Scheduling may have caught up a bit," he said. "This time last year, they didn't have the heat to contend with."
The first death of the season occurred on April 6, in the S. Lurman Stewart Memorial race in Monkton, Md.. Point Alpha, a 9-year-old bay gelding, ridden by owner Amza Horton, died at the end of the race.
William Santoro, a veterinarian who examined Point Alpha after the event, said a ruptured aorta was the cause of death. "I wouldn't say it is too unusual, because it does occur in high performance competition," he said.
Quill T' died April 8, before a race in Davidsonville, Md. Observers said the horse apparently was the victim of a prerace accident.
Paddy's Punch, a 9-year-old dark bay gelding, was the third horse to die when he dropped dead after finishing second in the 3 1/2-mile Middleburg (Va.) Hunt Cup on April 21. Many owners did not allow their horses to run that day because of hard ground and temperatures in the low 90s.
"It happened a lot more lately than it usually does," said Speedy Smithwick Jr. of Middleburg, this year's rider of the year on the circuit. He suffered a broken bone in his wrist Saturday in an early race on the Virginia Gold Cup card when his horse, Bar Jacket, a 6-year-old gelding, hit a fence and broke his leg. The horse was later destroyed, the fourth horse fatality of the year.
"I don't know why," he said. "It's happened a lot more than I'd like to see it happen."