- The Washington Times - Monday, May 12, 2008

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.”

Dutrow, however, is against converting the New York tracks to a new surface.

“I hope they don’t [switch] — I don’t want to see that happen,” he said. “When I was in Hollywood Park training, it destroyed half of my barn for [suspensory tendon damage]. That’s something you just can’t get over. That track ripped my horses apart, and I couldn’t wait to get out of there.”

Fewer races as a 2-year-old. To increase breeding value, trainers are pushed by owners to race their horses as 2-year-olds even if the early success means the animal will be unable to race in the Triple Crown series or beyond.

A new trend could be developing, though. Two years ago, Barbaro raced only twice during his 2-year-old campaign (and late in the year). Big Brown went to post just once.

Only three of the 11 horses in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile reached the Kentucky Derby this year.

“Certainly the huge lucrative purses, including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile for young horses, is not a positive,” trainer Reade Baker said.

This year’s 20 Derby horses raced a combined 66 times in 2007. Like Big Brown, third-place finisher Denis of Cork raced once last year.

“That might help their soundness,” Baker said. “I don’t know how we got to this point in 40 years that these horses are as unsound as they are. It used to be in the old days a horse had to work — run six or seven times as a 2-year-old to be a Derby hopeful. Now we’ve got to the point where all those brilliant horses that won at Saratoga in the summertime have disappeared.”

Better track maintenance and spacing of Triple Crown races. A track that is dry is also harder on the horse, and physical problems could occur — think of a football player playing on concrete instead of natural grass.

On major racing days, some tracks purposely dry their track out to produce fast times that, in turn, increase the value of the horses.

“I think the most important thing is the track condition,” Dutrow said. “More than anything else in this game, a good track superintendent is important. If they had good ones in all these areas, they wouldn’t have to go to synthetic tracks. They would have guys that really know what they’re doing and would have it safe for the horses.”

Most of all, a more spacious Triple Crown schedule would foster safety. There are only two weeks between the Derby and Preakness and three weeks between the Preakness and Belmont. Most trainers like four weeks between races. There hasn’t been a Triple Crown winner since 1978.

Faced with training his colt to race three times in five weeks, Dutrow knows the schedule won’t change and also how taxing the campaign is on his horse.

“I would love for them to space them, but it wouldn’t be fair to the past horses that might have had a chance to win the Triple Crown,” Dutrow said. “I’m sitting here thinking, ‘Why do they have to run back in two weeks?’ Those other horses had to do it.”

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