May 1, 2009 07:40 PM | 2
A high-profile tragedy befell horse racing a year ago when filly Eight Belles, having just finished second in the Kentucky Derby, collapsed with two broken ankles and was euthanized on the track. The horse's death at Churchill Downs, just two years after 2006 Derby winner Barbaro suffered ultimately fatal injuries in the Preakness Stakes, cast a pall over the sport's marquee event and raised a number of questions about the safety of horse racing—questions the industry says it has tried to address in the past year.
"We're doing everything possible, and that is the legacy of Eight Belles," Alex Waldrop, president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA), told USA Today. One major development has been a new sport-wide ban on anabolic steroids, which some fault for putting increased strain on the animals' bodies. (Eight Belles tested negative for steroids after the Derby.) The ban stemmed from the 2008 Derby and Preakness winner, Big Brown, whose trainer openly acknowledged giving the thoroughbred the steroid stanozolol. That was the same drug that Barry Bonds is alleged to have used in the book Game of Shadows, and for which fellow slugger Rafael Palmeiro tested positive.
But as the New York Times points out, horse racing is still awash in legal drugs, such as anti-inflammatories, that also may pose health problems for racehorses. Rick Arthur, the equine medical director of the California Horse Racing Board, told the paper that there is concern that such drugs can make injured horses seem healthy during pre-race examinations. "Obviously, the patients can't talk to us so if some medication is hiding or is masking some problem, it's difficult to determine," he said. The Times asked the owners of all 20 horses running in this year's Derby to provide records of which legal drugs the entrants were taking; only three obliged.
Also of concern is the safety of racing surfaces—the makeup of a surface can have a big impact on the rate of catastrophic injuries, and synthetic surfaces appear to be preferable to dirt tracks such as Churchill Downs's in that regard. Last month the NTRA announced that it was opening a Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory in Maine to investigate safer track materials and develop industry standards. One of the lab's coordinators, Mick Peterson, is a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Maine who has used radar to study track composition and even developed a biomechanical hoof for surface testing. According to a profile this week in the Boston Globe, Peterson "believes racing can take long-term control of its safety problems by embracing 'a culture of data.'"
Historically, data has not cast American horse racing in a flattering light—U.S. horses suffer 1.47 fatalities per 1,000 starts on synthetic tracks and 2.03 per 1,000 on dirt. According to the Times, England's fatality risk ranges from 0.8 to 0.9 per 1,000 starts, while that of Victoria, Australia, is just 0.44 per 1,000 starts. And this year appears to be no exception to the domestic trend: 12 horses have been put down at New York City's Aqueduct Racetrack (another dirt track) since November, the Times reports; another runner collapsed and died of a heart attack immediately following a race.
Nancy Heitzeg, a sociologist at the College of St. Catherine in Minneapolis, told the paper that in the U.S., since Eight Belles brought safety issues to the fore, there have been roughly three breakdowns a day. According to statistics cited by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, that rate is slightly above average.
Whatever protocols and safety measures are introduced, some risk to both human and horse is an inescapable part of the sport. "Just like auto racing...there is the potential for injury," trainer Todd Pletcher told USA Today. "We are never going to be completely protected."
Photo of Eight Belles in the 2008 Kentucky Derby: Banamine on Flickr
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