Thursday, May 3, 2012

Only sadness on Derby Day

The biggest sports day of the year for me used to be Derby Day.
My mother’s love for horses sparked my interest in The Triple Crown, and especially the Kentucky Derby.  
I had absolutely fell in love with the 1979 movie The Black Stallion.  I was 7 years old, and I imagined that I could be young Alec:  a young unknown riding a racehorse to victory by means of a bond between boy and horse (hopefully WITHOUT ever being stranded on an island)...
The movie was a gateway to the stars of horse racing world:  Citation, Man O’ War, Seattle Slew, Seabiscuit, Carry Back, Affirmed and Alydar, and the greatest of them all, Secretariat. 
But it was some years later that a current horse caught my eye and made Derby Day among the most important of the year.  A horse named Alysheba was bumped twice in the 1987 Kentucky Derby, and found himself far behind the herd. He had nearly fell to his knees.  But he made an eventual charge for the finish to shock the horse racing world.  I was now a big fan.
The next year’s thrilling battle between Easy Goer and Sunday Silence had me hooked.  I knew I would be doing for every Triple Crown race for years to come.
It was the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Distaff that started to change how I felt about Horse Racing.  Go For Wand, in a highly anticipated race with Bayakoa, ruptured her cannon bone on the home stretch.  She horrifically got up and limped across the finish line before they were able to get her to lie down, so they could euthanize her on the track.  
I already knew by heart the tragic story of Ruffian, the most famous filly of all time, who broke down in her match race with Derby winner Foolish Pleasure.  I had always thought of it as a great tragic accident.  Seeing Go For Wand break down got me thinking.
I watched for the next 15 years of racing with a sense of anticipation and dread:  wanting my heart to be captured and dreading it would be broken.  And while certainly horses swept me up with joy, I saw two more horse euthanized from the Triple Crown races.
The end came for me in the 2006, when Barbaro broke down in the opening steps of the Preakness.  He was a beautiful horse, incredible personality, and light years beyond his competitors.  After trouncing the Derby field, Barbaro crashed the gate (false started) at the Preakness.  The track veterinarian quickly decided he was sound to run.  Moments later, his leg shattered in front of millions of horrified eyes.  I have not watched a race since.

Horse people will tell you that “these things just happen.”  That’s just not good enough.

If there is one thing horse racing has proven completely inept at, it's fixing its own problems. This is the ultimate can't-do sport: bereft of a national governing body and generally lacking in leadership, cohesiveness, vision, adaptability or a sound plan for connecting to the masses.
(Joe DeFrancis, chief executive officer of the Maryland Jockey Club) drew an analogy to auto racing, saying that the potential for tragedy is there as well. But here's where that analogy falls short: When Dale Earnhardt was killed at Daytona in 2001, NASCAR didn't just shrug. It reacted, changed its safety regulations -- and became a safer sport. Lethal crashes are down since then.
That's the difference between a smart, assertive sport and an inert sport. Doing nothing only guarantees that the same injuries will keep happening.  
Animal Aid reports that since 2007 in Britain, 823 horses have died on-course in Thoroughbred racing.  Their research indicates that around 420 horses are raced to death every year when you additionally consider training and disposal of commercially ‘unproductive’ horses. About 38 per cent die on racecourses, while the others are destroyed as a result of training injuries, or are killed because they are no longer commercially viable.
HBO did a television drama series called Luck on racehorses in 2011.  It was cancelled in 2012 after three horses died during production, unintentionally shedding new light on the problem.  In 2011, 186 horses in California alone died or were put down, as a result of racing and training injuries, mostly broken legs.  

There is no way to completely take out the risk in horse racing.  But there is too much that could be done that hasn’t happened.  Here are three things:

1)  Horse racing has a drug problem.
Alysheba, the horse that had really entranced me, used the anti-bleeding drug called Lasix in both of his dramatic victories.  The drug was, at the time, banned in New York.  Running without it, he lost in the Belmont Stakes.  More race horses now currently run on Lasix than without.
The idea that horses need drugs in order to race is a major problem.  The industry is still resistant despite losing fans and horses.  Just last month, A proposal to ban Lasix on race days in Kentucky lost by a vote.  From ESPN:

The proposal would have made Kentucky the first state to ban race-day use of furosemide, marketed under the brand names Lasix or Salix. The drug is used to treat pulmonary hemorrhaging in racehorses. Furosemide is the only medication allowed to be given to horses on race day in the United States. Its use is banned in other countries because it enhances performance.
Last year, a bipartisan pair of lawmakers sought a national ban on performance-enhancing drugs in a bill that came three years after death of Eight Belles at the 2008 Kentucky Derby. A drug test proved that the horse was clear of steroids, but the death helped shine a light on safety problems and the lack of a single governing body for the sport.
Rick Dutrow, trainer of the 2008 Derby winner Big Brown, acknowledged he regularly injected the horse with the then-legal steroid stanozolol.
To think that this just is about the race day meds is frightening.  The drugs used in training have continued to rise over the years.

2) Track surfaces need to be safety first and embrace new thinking.  
There is something racing can do to address the problem: It can seriously and aggressively study widespread installation of Polytrack, the synthetic racing surface that gained popularity in Europe, is establishing a beachhead in North America -- and has a reputation for being safer than dirt. Polytrack is formed from polypropeylene fibers, recycled rubber and silica sand covered in a wax coating.
The data is far from complete on Polytrack, but early indications are that breakdowns are dramatically reduced on that surface. According to Turfway, there were three catastrophic breakdowns during the first meet on Polytrack. The year before Polytrack was installed there were 24.
CBS News reported in March of this year:
In 2006, the California Horse Racing Board ordered the state's major tracks to convert to synthetic and Santa Anita spent $11 million to do it.
A study of horse deaths over five racing seasons in California revealed 37 percent fewer fatalities on synthetic surfaces. That's also been the trend on the synthetic track at Keeneland in Kentucky. 
There were, however, new injuries to be found on the synthetic tracks (though fewer leading to death), especially during training.  The track maintenance was expensive, and racing days were periodically canceled due to drainage problems.
After a near revolt by trainers and riders, Santa Anita (for 2010) won permission to go back to dirt.
But so far, the death rate at Santa Anita has nearly doubled on the dirt, now just under four for every 1,000 racing starts.

3)  Uniform rules for horse safety on race day.

Could you imagine the uproar if the track veterinarian, with only a few seconds to make a decision, had declared Derby winner Barbaro unfit to run the Preakness, denying a shot at the Triple Crown?  I will certainly give the vet the benefit of the doubt that pressure had nothing to do with the decision, but it should not have been a decision to be made under fire.
If your horse breaks through the gate, disqualify for that race.  Throws his rider?  Disqualify.  People more knowledgeable than me can come up with the list of things that automatically say, “no, not today, the horse is not in its best condition to run.”  Take it out of the subjective, and set the clear rules.
There have been 11 Triple Crown winners in horse racing:  the first in 1919, and none since 1978 when Affirmed beat Alydar in three dramatic races by a length and a half, a head, and a nose.  I was too young to remember seeing those races live, but for years I dreamed of a day when I would finally see a horse accomplish it. 
But until racing changes, I for one will not tune in to find out.