A year after Eight Belles, is horse racing safer?: NBC Sports 4/30/09
Criticism mounts, but industry says it has enhanced precautions for animals
By Mike Brunker
Horse racing editor
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - A year after the tragic death of Eight Belles unleashed an unprecedented wave of criticism of horse racing, a central question surrounds the 135th running of the Kentucky Derby: Are the horses that will hurtle around the Churchill Downs racetrack on Saturday any safer than the ill-fated filly?
The answer, it appears, is a qualified “yes.”
The horse racing industry reacted to the freak accident that claimed Eight Belles’ life as if it had been struck across the face with a whip. As a result, several steps aimed at improving safety have been taken in the year since the filly collapsed as she galloped out after crossing the finish line in second place, behind Derby winner Big Brown.
Among the reforms that have been widely adopted are bans on the use of anabolic steroids within 30 days of a race, widespread adoption of less-hurtful air-cushioned whips and prohibitions on the use of a type of cleated horseshoe believed to cause leg injuries.
But make no mistake that racing remains a dangerous sport, both for its equine stars and the diminutive athletes who sit astride the 1,200-pound, flesh-and-blood racing machines. That point was driven home on Monday, when a collision between two horses at during training hours at Churchill Downs forced veterinarians to euthanize Raspberry Miss, an unraced 2-year old filly.
That’s why the sport’s guardians, participants and fans will be holding their collective breath as the nation focuses on its marquee event, the storied Run for the Roses. The 1 ¼-mile race presents a grueling challenge for 3-year-old thoroughbreds, which like teenage athletes are still maturing and testing their physical limits.
Critics, however, are not waiting to see if all 20 runners expected to break from the starting gate return safely to their barns.
Members of the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals are planning to stage a “memorial” outside Churchill Downs on Friday and Saturday to highlight the risks not just to the Derby horses, but the thoroughbreds that compete every day at racetracks around the nation.
“We will have headstones, one with Eight Belles on it and 256 others with the names of other racehorses that died in the last year,” said Kathy Guillermo, a PETA spokeswoman. “Then there will be another for the other 800 or so horses whose names we don’t know. … People made a connection to Eight Belles, but there were about 1,000 other Eight Belles in the last year. They just weren’t as famous.”
U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., a critic of the sport’s decentralized structure, said he plans to introduce legislation this summer that would force tracks to meet unspecified safety standards or face the loss of simulcasting revenue — the lifeblood of the industry as attendance at live racing has declined.
“There’s been cosmetic changes — more committees formed,” he told the Associated Press last week. “They’re looking into this and that and making improvements, but the bottom line is, not a lot of change.”
Stuart Janney III, chairman of the Jockey Club’s Thoroughbred Safety Committee, said such criticism misses the mark. He said that various factions of the often fractured racing industry — including horsemen, owners and breeders, racing regulators and veterinarians — are now working together to address safety issues and had achieved virtual unanimity on difficult issues like steroids, something that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
“I think it was very important that the industry demonstrate to itself that it could get … on a winning path,” he said. “It has done so in the past year.”
Mike Ziegler, executive director of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s Safety and Integrity Alliance, also feels that the industry has made strides toward improving safety through a new racetrack accreditation program.
Requiring racetracks to adhere to an industry-developed code of standards is a more effective way of policing the sport than adding a layer of federal bureaucracy, he said.
“It can work like the health care industry,” he said. “Hospitals are accredited … and if they’re not, they’re out of business. The idea is that tracks will want to be accredited by meeting these minimum standards of what’s good for the horses and jockeys and fans will want to participate at those tracks.”
So far the program has accredited two tracks — Churchill Downs and Keeneland Race Course, both in Kentucky — after a review of their racing operations, Ziegler said. His team is currently poring over Delaware Park’s application and in the coming weeks will review those of Pimlico Racecourse in Maryland, Hollywood Park in California, Belmont Park in New York, Arlington Park in Illinois and Calder Race Course in Florida.
Whether or not federal regulation of racing is enacted, it is clear that Eight Belles’ death focused attention on horse racing’s hazards like no other accident -- even the iconic Barbaro’s ultimately fatal injury in the 2006 Preakness Stakes. That’s probably because her demise was both sudden and gruesome, as video released soon after the race showed her struggling to try to get back on her feet after breaking both her front ankles and collapsing on the track.
PETA turned up pressure on the sport almost immediately after the accident, picketing the Preakness and Belmont Stakes and pushing for a series of reforms that included banning all but the most benign medications, halting the racing of still-developing 2-year-olds, refocusing its breeding programs on longevity and replacing dirt tracks with synthetic racing surfaces.
The organization is turning up the heat again as the Triple Crown puts racing in the public eye.
PETA spokeswoman Guillermo this week said that the changes the racing industry has instituted since Eight Belles’ death amount to “window dressing,” and argued that the sport has failed to address one of its most serious problems — the widespread use of legal medications like pain-killers and anti-inflammatory drugs. Those permissive medication policies enable horses to be raced when they are “sore or injured,” leading to many more breakdowns, she said.
“It’s like they didn’t read the congressional testimony,” she said, referring to a congressional hearing before the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection last summer. “Trainers, grooms, veterinary assistants and owners all said the same thing: They’re shooting up theses horses with so many drugs leading up to the race that no one knows how the horse feels anymore. … It’s the refusal to acknowledge this and to keep them running that is causing them to break down.”
But Janney, the Jockey Club’s point man on safety issues, said that assumes that because the sport took on other issues first it isn’t serious about addressing legal medications.
“We chose to create an agenda and take on some issues sooner rather than later,” he said. “… But we have not given that (legal medication) a pass.”
That position is echoed by Scott Waterman, a veterinarian and executive director of the Racing and Medication Consortium, who said that it’s time for PETA and other critics to tone down the heated rhetoric.
“It’s a very emotional issue,” he said. “If we really want to make progress you try to remove the emotion. And you do that by conducting good, sound scientific studies.”
For example, he said, the racing industry moved quickly to adopt rules barring administration of anabolic steroids within 30 days of a race after evidence was developed showing that the drugs had legitimate uses, but also could enhance performance.
“The reason was that these could be therapeutic,” he said. “We just wanted to ensure they are not receiving any benefit from the drug when they are running a race.”
That rule has now been adopted by 35 of the 38 racing states, the exceptions being Idaho, Montana and South Dakota, all of which have very small racing industries, he said.
Studies of the effects of the anti-bleeding medication Lasix and corticosteroids, the anti inflammatory medications, also are under way and results of those are likely to lead to new regulations, Waterman said.
Racing also is coming to grips with one of its most sensitive issues: the frequency of serious and fatal injuries.
The industry has launched an effort to build a comprehensive database of equine injuries and fatalities, under the auspices of The Jockey Club, the national thoroughbred registry .
Dr. Mary Scollay, equine medical director for the state of Kentucky and veterinary consultant to Jockey Club, said that 75 racetracks in the U.S. and Canada are currently reporting injuries and fatalities to the Equine Injury Database, which represents approximately 83 percent of racing venues.
She, too, urged patience while the data is assembled and analyzed, explaining that even answering seemingly simple questions, such as whether synthetic racing surfaces are safer than dirt, are much more complicated than they first appear.
“On the face of it, it seems simple,” she said. “You take the number of starts, the number of fatalities and divide and there’s your answer. But it becomes every complicated very quickly because there are a range of circumstances attached to racetracks that are not directly tied to the surface, but can be factors.”
For example, she said, horses that race on the turf in the U.S. sustain a higher frequency of fractures to their right, hind pastern (a bone between the hoof and the ankle) as opposed to dirt racing.
“The easy conclusion would be that turf racing contributes to this injury,” Scollay said. “But if you look a bit more closely, it is more likely the track configuration contributes to this injury because most of our turf courses are inside the main track and have tighter radii (forcing the horses to corner more sharply and increasing the pressure on the pastern).”
Racing interests also are funding an effort to measure the cushion in various racing surfaces and develop best practices for their maintenance.
Dr. Mick Peterson, a professor in mechanical engineering at the University of Maine who is leading the program with Dr. Wayne McIlwraith of Colorado State University, has developed a device to gauge both a racing surface’s ability to absorb force and the amount of slippage that a horse’s hoof causes when it strikes the surface.
“The machine mounts on the back of a truck,” he explained. “I pull out on the track and my protocol is 24 measurements around the track. Each time I lift a 67 pound weight about 6 feet in the air and then drop it. It hits and it slides, just like a horse’s foot. It’s a lot of force. … You get a little bounce in your shoes out it.”
He said that the racing surface program eventually will be compared to the injury database that Scollay is assembling, so that best practices can be established for maintenance of racing surfaces. For instance, that data could help a track superintendent to know exactly how much water to add to a dirt track on a hot, humid and windy day to keep the racing surface at its best and decrease the chance of injury, he said.
“When we can link the information that I’m getting on the racetracks back to the injury database, then we’ll really begin to impact the safety of the horses on the track,” he said.
It is initiatives like this that make the Jockey Club’s Janney optimistic that the sport will ultimately be strengthened by the adverse publicity that erupted from Eight Belles’ accident.
“If the Eight Belles tragedy makes us all more cooperative, less inward-looking, more proactive and more sensitive to how our sport is perceived by others,” he said in August at an industry conference, “then Eight Belles may be viewed in years to come as one of the most important racehorses ever to step on a track.”
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