At Del Mar, where horse racing is usually idyllic, where the sun is almost always shining, where enthusiastic crowds enjoy the relaxed ambience of the seaside track, one development this season has cast a deep shadow.
As a record crowd of just over 42,000 watched the fourth race on opening day, a 7-year-old named Geronimo barely got out of the gate before his jockey pulled him up and the horse ambulance arrived to bear the injured animal off the track. In the feature race that day, the colt Blazing Sunset turned into the stretch with the lead and suddenly broke his right front leg. He had to be euthanized.
Those mishaps were just the beginning of a trend that became the No. 1 topic at Del Mar. In the first eight days of the season, 12 horses had to be removed from the track by vans and seven were euthanized. At least two other horses have broken down in morning training, including the stakes-caliber New Joysey Jeff, who was euthanized Monday. Most horsemen thought they knew the explanation for this epidemic. When the 8-year-old gelding Bonus Pack broke down, his trainer Bill Spawr told the Daily Racing Form, "I ran a sound horse and he got hurt." Spawr said he was "very concerned" about the condition of the racing surface. Trainers met with members of the Del Mar management to discuss their misgivings about the condition of the track.
Coincidentally, another major racetrack was going through a similar ordeal. Arlington Park was receiving considerable attention in Chicago after 14 horses were euthanized during the first two months of its season. There, too, some trainers blamed the racetrack for the breakdowns.
But this explanation is a dubious one. The construction and maintenance of racetracks today is much more sophisticated than it was decades ago -- when breakdowns were rarer. Moreover, a look at the Del Mar casualty list casts doubt on the theory that dirt was the culprit. Three of the 12 horses injured themselves on the turf. Two or three were horses whose records contained red flags suggesting that something was wrong; one of them, Ugotadowhatugotado, had run well in $62,500 claiming company and was entered for the bargain-basement price of $16,000 on the last day of her life.
What causes so many horses to break down? This is a question that has received national attention since millions of television viewers watched Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro shatter his leg in the Preakness Stakes.
Rick Arthur, a respected veterinarian who is soon to be the equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board, studied the events at Del Mar and he thinks the racetrack may play a small role in the breakdowns. "In the mid-'80s," he said, "we did a study and found that there's usually a rash of injuries every time you move to a new track. But the cause of the breakdowns is not just the track -- it would be naive to blame the track. We've had an alarming increase in fatalities in the last two years. This is a multifaceted problem."
Thoroughbreds are undeniably more fragile than they used to be. Most breeders raise horses to sell them at auction, and they look for pedigrees that emphasize speed and precocity because that is what the marketplace wants. So they don't try to breed for soundness and durability. Moreover, the legalization of medications such as Butazolidin has allowed infirm horses to succeed on the track, go to stud and pass on their infirmities to their offspring. In 1960, before permissive medication became legal, the average American racehorse made 11.3 starts during the year. In 2005, the average horse ran 6.4 times -- and the number keeps dropping every year.
California racing has a unique style that surely contributes to thoroughbreds' injuries. Trainers give the horses fast and frequent workouts so they can cope with the quick pace of races here. A 3-year-old filly came into a maiden-claiming race here recently after a four-furlong workout in 45 3/5 seconds and a three-furlong workout in 33 2/5 seconds. This is faster than stakes horses train in the East, and such intense exertion must take a toll on some of the animals.
The very nature of claiming races almost guarantees that horses with physical problems won't get proper care. Trainers with large-scale claiming operations dominate almost every major track, Del Mar included. The harsh economics of the business dictate the way they manage their horses. When an animal develops physical problems, the trainer is more likely to give him a shot of cortisone as a short-term fix than to give him a rest. When the problems get worse, the trainer will continue to race the horse and drop him in class, hoping that somebody else will claim him and inherit the problems.
In many cases it is disingenuous for trainers to blame a racing surface for catastrophic injuries when they themselves are part of the problem. After the breakdowns at Arlington Park became a subject of controversy, trainer Christine Janks wrote a column for the Blood-Horse magazine and declared: "There is no mystery to me why we are having these breakdowns. . . . Trainers are responsible for the health of these horses . . . and not all trainers put the welfare of the horse first."
The business plan of many trainers, Janks wrote, is this: "Get one more race out of them, drop them down [in claiming price] and get them claimed. If they break down, fill the stall the next day with another young face."
The cause for breakdowns is built into the nature of the sport and the nature of the modern American thoroughbred, and there is no easy remedy. A two-day "summit conference," organized by some of the big names in the sport, will address the issue in October. Del Mar has already responded by adding a third veterinarian to its pre-race inspection team, trying to spot horses whose physical problems might be catastrophic. Arlington, too, has increased those inspections -- a step that all tracks should emulate before they find themselves coping with a public-relations nightmare.
All the good things a racetrack does can be negated by the sight of a helpless thoroughbred with a dangling, shattered leg. Nothing is surer to drive away people getting their first exposure to racing. "Fatal injuries to racehorses," Arthur said, "are the Achilles' heel of our sport."