Big Brown’s attempt at a second Triple Crown victory won’t be the only reason Saturday’s Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course is appointment viewing. Concern over the safety of the horses involved also will feed the audience.
The colt’s impressive victory in the Kentucky Derby nine days ago was overshadowed by the death of second-place finisher Eight Belles, who was euthanized on the track after breaking both front ankles.
The filly’s death on racing’s biggest day brought back memories of the ultimately fatal injury to Barbaro at the Preakness two years ago and again stirred debate about how horses are bred, trained and raced.
Was the natural dirt surface to blame? Is the breeding, which is focused more on speed than durability, an issue? Are the big races too close together?
“No matter how safe you’re going to have it with these horses, they go through the pounding and the training. You’re going to have accidents that happen,” Big Brown trainer Rick Dutrow said. “You’re going to have horses that break down.”
The Jockey Club — the breed registry for North American thoroughbreds — formed a committee last week to study equine health, including track safety and the rules of racing. The panel will recommend actions the industry needs to take to improve the health and safety of its horses.
Some of the issues that could be considered:
• Track surfaces. Many trainers and nearly all veterinarians have embraced the move to synthetic surfaces, citing the consistency of the track regardless of weather conditions. Regular tracks can become uneven with heavy rain and overuse that can cause injury to the horse with the slightest misstep.
The artificial surfaces have proved to be safer. Through March 1 of this year, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal, synthetic surfaces have produced a rate of 1.47 fatal breakdowns per 1,000 starts, compared to 2.02 for dirt tracks.
Five major tracks — Del Mar (California), Woodbine (Canada), Arlington Park (Illinois) and Turfway Park and Keeneland in Kentucky — have switched to a Polytrack surface. Additionally, other tracks have a similar kind of synthetic surface.
Polytrack, a mix of sand, synthetic fiber and recycled rubber coated with a wax, allows conditions to remain unchanged regardless of rain or snow.
The three tracks that play host to the Triple Crown races — Churchill Downs, Pimlico and Belmont Park — remain natural dirt surfaces.
Last week, the New York Racing Association announced it would explore spending $50 million to convert Belmont, Saratoga and Aqueduct to a synthetic surface.
The majority of trainers polled in the last two years have embraced the change.
“The biggest improvement we’ve had in years is the introduction of the all-weather tracks,” trainer Louie Roussel said. “Some trainers don’t like them, and I can understand that, but I think it’s helped the game.”