- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 13, 2007

LOUISVILLE, Ky. He was still two weeks from making his Kentucky Derby debut aboard Hard Spun, but Mario Pino didn’t need to be finished with the Road to the Roses to see its effect.

“It’s a rough race,” the veteran Maryland-based jockey said. “You have to be lucky to come out of that race. And then the horse might not show up for that next race. It’s why the field gets dwindled after the Derby.”

It’s been 29 years since a horse, Affirmed, was lucky enough and good enough to win the Triple Crown a sign of just how tough it is to prepare for and compete in racing’s marquee events.

The road to the Kentucky Derby and through the Triple Crown series exacts a heavy toll on young thoroughbreds: The horses run increasingly longer distances against increasingly larger and tougher fields during the first half of the season for 3-year-olds.

The wear and tear often results in injuries that sideline the colts for months and render them uncompetitive upon their return to the track. In some cases, the result is much worse: a career- or life-ending injury such as the one suffered by Derby champion Barbaro last year in the Preakness Stakes.

“There are a lot of horses throughout the years where the Derby was their last career race,” trainer Larry Jones said. “It does take a toll.”

The industry is, however, taking steps to reduce the physical price paid by horses.

Many tracks in North America are installing synthetic racing surfaces to reduce catastrophic injuries and increase horses’ longevity and durability. Additionally, some trainers have altered their horses’ pre-Kentucky Derby schedule, giving their charges more time off and fewer races so they can better withstand the strain of the Triple Crown series.

On Saturday, Derby winner Street Sense takes the next step toward the Triple Crown in the running of the 132nd Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.

Recent history suggests that, despite improvements made at tracks and in racing schedules, the 3-year-old colt won’t be around for the marquee races in the fall.

A grueling road

Imagine the University of Florida men’s basketball team playing longer games as it progressed in the NCAA tournament or Tiger Woods playing a major golf tournament with rounds of 18, 21, 24 and 27 holes.

That, in essence, is what thoroughbreds are required to do to race in the Kentucky Derby.

Lightly raced as 2-year-olds, the horses embark on the Triple Crown trail in January and February in an effort to earn enough money to secure a starting position in the Derby. As winter turns to spring, the distance of the races and the size of the fields increase: Hard Spun, for example, ran 1, 1 and 1 miles in his past three races. The fields for those races grew from nine to 12 to 20 horses.

“The thing that makes the Triple Crown campaign grueling is that, as you go along, the horse has to constantly compete at a higher level each time out,” said trainer Tom Amoss, who also is an analyst for TVG, a cable network that broadcasts only horse racing. “Each race for these horses gets tougher. The Derby is the toughest, and it’s longer than any of the horses has ever run a real marathon distance miles] and they carry more weight than they ever have.”

Following the Derby, a horse that moves on to the Preakness runs what is at that point the second-longest race of its career (13/16 miles) after the shortest layoff of its career (two weeks). The final leg of the series is the 1-mile Belmont Stakes three weeks later.

Elliott Walden, a former trainer who is now vice president and racing manager for WinStar Farm, saddled Victory Gallop in all three legs in 1998. Victory Gallop finished second to Real Quiet in the Derby and Preakness but beat him by a nose in the Belmont, ending his Triple Crown bid.

“The one thing that helps a trainer is you get more time going into the Derby so you can go bing, bing, bing in the Triple Crown,” Mr. Walden said. “That’s the trend you’re seeing now trainers going four, five, six weeks before the Derby so they can be fresher for the first and second legs. The third leg is just a test of endurance and who’s left standing.”

Victory Gallop rebounded from the Triple Crown series to finish second in the Grade I Haskell Invitational and Grade I Travers Stakes in August 1998. Likewise, Point Given followed victories at the Preakness and Belmont in 2001 with wins in the Haskell and Travers.

Those horses, however, are the exception; the Road to the Roses saps most thoroughbreds for the rest of the year. The numbers show how taxing the road was for last year’s 20 Derby horses:

Before the Derby, those 20 horses posted a combined career record of 69-for-138 (a .500 winning percentage) and a record of 33-for-67 for a 49.3 percentage in the first four months of 2006. Two horses were unbeaten, and eight others had won at least half of their races.

After the Derby, the field went a combined 13-for-58 22.4 percent during the rest of last year. Only Showing Up (4-for-5 following a move to the turf) and Sweetnorthernsaint (2-for-3 with the wins coming after a five-month layoff) posted winning records. Eleven horses didn’t win after the Derby, and four horses raced only once the rest of the year.

Because so many underperformed post-Derby, 17 of the 20 horses remain in training. Had they performed well on the track in the summer and fall months, their value as studs would have risen. The owners then would have been able to turn a profit by selling their horses rather than keep them in training.

“Those numbers don’t surprise me,” Amoss said. “When you take all of those things into account, it definitely has an impact. They fall by the wayside.”

Since 1990, when Grindstone won the Derby but suffered a career-ending injury, only 42 of the combined 295 Derby starters (14.3 percent) raced in all three Triple Crown races. None did last year.

Horses in this generation are bred for speed, not durability. All it takes is one misstep for bones to snap, and all it takes for a star horse to be retired is a hairline fracture or strained tendon.

“I think horses are , but not to the degree that people say,” said Larry Bramlage, the on-call veterinarian at the Triple Crown races for the American Association of Equine Practitioners. “Our average racehorse still starts more times than do all the other racing venues, but it’s considerably less than the number of starts made in the 1950s.”

Bramlage estimates there are five times as many horses in training today than there were 50 years ago, but the number of tracks and marquee races (save for the Breeders’ Cup) remains the same. The competition to get into the “classic” races, therefore, is more strenuous than it once was.

“That means they’re trained harder,” he said. “The wear and tear per start goes up.”

Even if a horse comes out of the Triple Crown series intact, chances are he won’t do much the rest of the year. In September, those thoroughbreds face older horses for the first time as well as 3-year-olds that developed more slowly but are fresher.

The marquee race of the fall, in late October or early November, is the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Only Sunday Silence (1989) and Unbridled (1990) have won the Classic and the Derby in the same year.

Owner’s pressure

It was only August, and the trainer already knew his 2-year-old colt was good on the turf and bad on the dirt. But with the Kentucky Derby still more than eight months away, the owner had a different idea.

The owner ordered a switch to the dirt.

The trainer said it wasn’t a good idea.

The owner moved the horse to another barn.

The trainer told the owner to find a new home for the other 19 horses under his care.

“He got Derby Fever in August,” said the trainer, who requested anonymity. “After he moved that horse, I told him, ‘If I can’t train the good ones, I don’t want to train the bad ones,’ and I cashed out.”

A new trainer tried the horse on the dirt but failed. The horse became a stakes winner on the turf.

The example is extreme, but ownership pressure is real. Owners often force trainers to run horses in big races especially the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup even though the colts may not be completely healthy or, more often, not nearly good enough to win.

Most owners get only one shot at the Derby only eight individuals or ownership groups have entered 10 or more starters in that race.

“It makes people push horses harder,” trainer Jones said. “If it was any other race, and the horse had an issue, they would just opt for another race in three weeks. The Derby is once in a lifetime, so the owners say, ‘Let’s take a chance.’”

Owner Rick Porter could have taken a chance in 2005 with Rockport Harbor. Following a perfect 2-year-old season (4-for-4), Rockport Harbor was considered a top Derby contender. His journey to Louisville, though, was derailed by a gash to his right rear leg and a blood clot in his neck. After finishing second-to-last in the Lexington Stakes two weeks before the Derby, Mr. Porter decided his dream could wait.

” felt the horse needed a race before the Derby because he had already missed so much time, and I agreed,” Mr. Porter said. “We knew we were taking a gamble, but he needed to run.”

Mr. Porter got to the Derby this year and finished second with Hard Spun, who had an unorthodox racing schedule that included layoffs of five and six weeks leading into the Derby and a final prep race at Turfway Park in Florence, Ky.

“With all my trainers, we discuss a lot of things. But there is a line there has to be that I don’t cross when it comes to decisions,” Mr. Porter said. “I don’t tell them where to race and when to race. When they ask me what I think, I give my opinion.”

Said Jones: “If my horse wasn’t 100 percent, I don’t feel like I have to run him. There are some trainers who, if their horse comes up with a filled ankle after they blow him out a week before the race, they’re going to get a vet in the barn to get the swelling out because he’s running the Derby even though it might not be the best thing for the horse.

“It’s almost like some owners and trainers are holding a sign up saying, ‘Derby or Bust.’”

Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas never defied an owner who wanted to run in the Derby even though, he says, some horses have “embarrassed me.” Only 10 of his record 42 starters that number includes wins with Winning Colors, Thunder Gulch, Grindstone and Charismatic have finished in the top three.

“I don’t want to play with their heads or their dreams,” Lukas said of his clients. “But some of my colleagues have said, ‘I’m not leading this horse over.’ I’ve never been in such a position where I thought it was that bad. I always figured, what the , maybe the owner will get a reality check and be better for it. And I’ve had guys call me the next day and say, ‘Wayne, you were right.’

“I ran a lot of horses in the Derby that I didn’t want to run.”

Mr. Walden has been on both sides. As a trainer, he finished second in the Derby twice. In his current job with WinStar Farm, he’s responsible for selecting trainers and conferring with them on a race schedule.

“The horses are easy,” he said. “Dealing with the management of the owners is the most difficult part of the job.”

New surface could help

Synthetic surfaces are the biggest rage to hit racing since online and telephone betting.

The California Horse Racing Board ordered a switch to synthetic surfaces after 104 fatalities occurred in 2005 an average of 3.5 per 1,000 starts, well above the national average of 1.5. All four major tracks in that state Del Mar, Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Golden Gate have installed or will install the surface or face a reduction in racing dates.

Keeneland (Lexington, Ky.), Arlington Park (Chicago), Woodbine (Toronto) and Turfway Park also have switched to the surfaces at a cost of between $7 million and $10 million.

The tracks that host the Triple Crown races aren’t considering a change, but there is hope in the industry that holding prep races and training sessions on the synthetic surface will keep horses fresher heading into the Kentucky Derby and also extend the colts’ careers.

The synthetic surfaces Polytrack, Cushion Track, Tapeta Footings and Pro-Ride consist of a cushiony surface of wax-coated sand, synthetic fibers and recycled rubber.

The early returns on safety are good: Twenty-four fatal breakdowns occurred at Turfway Park during the 2004-05 racing season. That number was reduced to three on Polytrack during the 2005-06 season.

“I do think it’s safer,” Jones said. “I love the way the horses come off the races when you send them back to the track. They’re not body sore. They just go. I definitely think the catastrophic injuries will be less. There will still be the tissue and tendon injuries, but the bone breaks won’t be as bad. You’re already seeing a drastic reduction in those.”

Others are withholding judgment.

“You’re going to get a lot of different opinions on Polytrack,” Amoss said. “It’s going to produce a different result than on dirt or turf. Secondly, it’s a safer surface for horses to train over. But does that make it an exciting surface? No.”

The Blue Grass Stakes last month at Keeneland was the only major prep race run on the synthetic surface. The opening half-mile was completed in 51.46 seconds; the next-slowest time was 47.98 seconds in the Arkansas Derby. The Blue Grass finished the final quarter in 49.87, 2 seconds quicker than the other races.

But the absolute boredom of the race’s first mile left some turned off.

“There’s only one word for that race: embarrassing,” Amoss said.

Dr. Bramlage said the manner in which the Blue Grass was contested is beneficial to the horses’ durability.

“The European style of racing, where you gallop along together and then sprint for the last one or two furlongs, is a little easier on the horse than going out so fast that you wear yourself out and stagger home because the horse is exhausted,” he said.

Mr. Porter predicts that every major track in the United States will have synthetic surfaces within three to four years.

“It’s going to be great for the sport,” he said. “The sooner everybody gets on board, the better. I don’t understand why more tracks aren’t stepping up to the plate. The owners of the tracks get fuller fields. The owners of the horses get more races.

“It’s one of the few things in this sport in a long time that has been good for everybody.”

But for a sport always in search of a niche, a Triple Crown winner and Derby horses who capture the nation’s interest with successful summer and fall seasons would be great for everybody.

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