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A search for truth as horses race, die

Kelli O’Brien, left, and Tom Crain, two of about 20 protesters, argue with Laura Koester outside the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority’s headquarters in Lexington. Nearly as many people defended the sport.

Associated Press

Kelli O’Brien, left, and Tom Crain, two of about 20 protesters, argue with Laura Koester outside the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority’s headquarters in Lexington. Nearly as many people defended the sport.

OLDSMAR

It is midday, and the hardcore have gathered at Tampa Bay Downs. Mostly men, mostly white, mostly older. Live racing may be done for the season here, but not at Belmont. Or Pimlico, or Philly or Finger Lakes. Somewhere, the racing never ends.

So the faithful come here to watch simulcast races on dozens of television sets with the volumes turned all the way down. They place their bets, they sit alone at tables, and they barely speak at all.

It is, ironically, one of the few places where voices are not now raised over horse racing.

Four days have passed since Eight Belles collapsed at the Kentucky Derby, leaving some to ponder whether the damage would force horse racing itself to someday be euthanized.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals leads the chorus from one side of the stage. Cruel and barbaric, the group shouts. The horse racing establishment fires back from the other side. Knee-jerk and misinformed, it decries.

Somewhere in between, the truth resides.

Horse racing is not dogfighting. It is not bullfighting. Those are despicable activities that revolve around the idea of torture and mayhem, and to lump horse racing in the same category is disingenuous.

Although cruelty is not the intent of horse racing, that does not excuse the sport from its negligence or culpability in the deaths of too many animals.

Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, injured at the 2006 Preakness and euthanized in January 2007. Pine Island in the Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs a few months later. George Washington at the 2007 Breeders' Cup at Monmouth Park. And now, Eight Belles, the most captivating filly the Kentucky Derby had seen in 20 years.

Too many high-profile deaths in too short a period. And, suddenly, people are starting to understand these incidents are not quite as random as you might have guessed. While the overall percentage is still low — somewhere around 0.2 percent by most estimates — the raw numbers turn into an estimated 700 fatalities a year.

For the owners, trainers and jockeys who supposedly love those animals, that number seems too high to be written off blithely as some kind of occupational hazard. Not when the only justification is the entertainment value for the blue bloods in the suites and the gamblers at the windows.

Predictably, there will be those who try to shout down PETA, saying the organization's demands are outlandish. They will label PETA spokesmen as opportunists and say they have no expertise when it comes to horse racing.

But I wonder how many horse people will stop to ask themselves this question:

Why is PETA having to lead this charge?

If the racing industry really cared that much about safety, wouldn't we be seeing more aggressive reforms? Wouldn't we be seeing fewer of these deaths on a national stage, instead of more? Shouldn't the industry have better responses than, "Hey, it's a dangerous sport"?

The simple truth is the industry has gotten very good at producing faster horses, but its track record is not nearly as impressive when it comes to providing a safer environment. There are far too many questions and, regrettably, not enough legitimate answers.

For instance:

Why do most countries prohibit drugs on the day of a race, yet the United States has no such ban? The risk is certain medications act as painkillers, so horses are unaware of injuries and push themselves beyond a safe limit. If a horse needs medication, it probably doesn't need to be racing.

That doesn't even include steroids, which are banned in the stables of England but are routinely pumped into American horses. A U.S. congressman from Kentucky recently suggested the federal government begin investigating steroid abuses at racetracks.

For instance:

Why has the industry been so slow to embrace the idea of synthetic tracks? A study by Dr. Mary Scollay commissioned, in part, by the Jockey Club, recently revealed the rate of catastrophic injuries for horses on synthetic tracks was 1.47 per 1,000 starts. On dirt tracks, the rate was 2.03.

Scollay points out her sampling was too small to be considered gospel, but those preliminary results are rather stunning. They suggest about 25 percent of these fatalities might be avoided with artificial tracks.

Yet many in the industry are against synthetic surfaces because of the cost, the difficulty in handicapping races and the impact they would have on record books.

For instance:

How humane is it for jockeys to use a whip to make a horse run faster? PETA has urged whips be outlawed, but that might be going to the opposite extreme. In other countries, whips are used to control a mount to avoid collisions. Any jockey using a whip excessively is punished. Sounds reasonable.

For instance:

When is the industry going to get a better handle on its breeding practices? Today's thoroughbreds are built for speed and nothing else. The emphasis is on strength and not better bone structure.

They're like sports cars on bicycle tires. They have incredible power but very little stability. Because of the money involved, horses are pushed at younger ages to run at breakneck speeds for a half-dozen races and then be retired to stud.

Horsemen's associations have dabbled in these types of topics in recent years but do not seem motivated to move quickly toward greater safety features. The various organizations are either too fractured or the leaders are too greedy to find a consensus on any true reforms. So now they must face the wrath of PETA and a suddenly awakening public.

The bottom line is most of these reforms would lead to slower times. It would, undoubtedly, cost several seconds in virtually every race.

Which, when you consider the alternative, doesn't sound like so much to lose.

John Romano can be reached

at romano@sptimes.com.

A search for truth as horses race, die 05/06/08 [Last modified: Thursday, May 8, 2008 1:28pm]

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