- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 22, 2009

It’s been a tough, tragic couple of years for some of the horses that make racing go. It’s about to get a lot tougher for at least one.

The Kentucky Derby is scheduled for the first Saturday in May and the winner gets a blanket of roses, a handful of peppermints and the burden of carrying an entire sport on his back for a few weeks.

Exactly how long he holds up depends on how deep the thoroughbred’s competitive streak runs and whether the humans around him are capable, careful and blessed by what people in the business call “racing luck.”

The way things have been going, they’ll need all the help they can get.

Since the deaths of Barbaro, after a breakdown at the Preakness in 2006, and the filly Eight Belles, euthanized on the track at last year’s Derby, questions about the safety of the track surfaces, the soundness of the horses bred to race on them and the desperate measures some trainers employ to keep them running have refused to go away.

So far, the answers have been anything but encouraging.

“It seems like the only time we get coverage any more is when something bad happens. It probably sells papers,” Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said Tuesday in a telephone call from Louisville, “but it doesn’t help business any.”

Baffert was talking several hours after working out Pioneerof the Nile, his Derby entrant and likely one of the pre-race favorites, over a drying-out dirt track at Churchill Downs. The silver-haired, California-based trainer won the Derby and Preakness with Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002), but failed to complete the Triple Crown sweep in the Belmont Stakes each time.

Baffert couldn’t come up with a horse good enough to justify the trip back East the last two years. He hardly needs reminding how long the odds are, nor how badly in need of renewal the racket is.

“Maybe it’s a case that you just appreciate things when you get older,” Baffert said. “When you’re younger, you get on a roll and start taking it for granted you’ll just keep coming back. You forget how many things have to go right.”

On Monday, a court hearing for prominent thoroughbred breeder Ernie Paragallo was postponed at the request of his lawyer. He was charged with 22 counts of torturing or injuring animals after police found nearly 200 horses at his upstate New York farm suffering from neglect and malnourishment earlier this month.

A day earlier, trainer Jeff Mullins, who will saddle another of the likely pre-race Derby favorites, was fined $2,500 and suspended for seven days by the New York State Racing and Wagering Board for giving another of his horses an over-the-counter medication before a race at Aqueduct nearly three weeks ago.

But the suspension doesn’t take effect until May 3 _ the day after the Mullins-trained I Want Revenge is scheduled to run in the Derby. It could be an “honest mistake,” as Mullins maintains, since he trains mostly in California and medication rules vary from state to state.

Then again, Mullins has collected a few violations on the West Coast as well. And either way, his presence will be one more reminder of how many of his colleagues have been sanctioned for medicating horses up to the allowable limit _ and occasionally beyond.

The interplay between those factors, plus the nagging suspicion that breeders are increasingly focused on pedigree and quick profits rather than developing sound runners, has taken its toll.

Nancy Heitzeg, a professor at St. Catherine’s University who has attempted to track all horse racing fatalities in the United States, told the New York Times recently that by her calculations, there had been approximately three breakdowns a day nationwide since last year’s Derby.

People in the industry argue that the breakdowns are a cost of doing business, not that different from the catastrophic injuries that end the careers of athletes in other dangerous and demanding sports. They also point to reforms enacted in the past year _ the creation of a safety committee by the Jockey Club, a medication and testing consortium and the resurfacing of tracks, mostly out west, with synthetic turf.

Research on the new surfaces was encouraging, but not conclusive. An early report showed no statistical difference in the results, though a revision released April 10 indicated the synthetic tracks were proving to be safer. While the final answer won’t be known for some time, perhaps it’s fitting that the issue has become an important piece in this year’s Derby handicapping puzzle.

Baffert’s horse Pioneerof the Nile ruled the surface at Santa Anita, beating I Want Revenge and Papa Clem, another highly regarded Derby contender, there in February. But Churchill Downs will be his thoroughbred’s first race on the dirt.

And while Baffert likes to joke that both rivals “left town to get away from me,” Papa Clem subsequently won the Arkansas Derby and I Want Revenge has been a beast since he headed east, winning both the Gotham and Wood Memorial in New York.

He wouldn’t mind a duel, but he’s practically praying for a clean race. His sport has three contests spread out over six weeks to capture the sporting public’s imagination, and a Triple Crown contender _ the last horse to win all three was Affirmed in 1978 _ would paper over some of the sad, lingering images of racing’s recent darker days.

“It’s a pretty even field right now, which is what’s so great about the Derby,” Baffert said. “One of these horses is about to go to the front of the line. Then we’ll find out whether he’s good enough to hold it.”

___

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org

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