But the outcry following the death of the filly Eight Belles shortly after she crossed the finish line in the Kentucky Derby has been different. Whether it is because she was a filly racing against the colts, because the death occurred in America’s most prominent and historic race or because it came so soon after Barbaro’s ultimately fatal injury in the 2006 Preakness Stakes, this time the anger has been as widespread as it has been ferocious.
Underlying the debate about practical steps that the sport could take to reduce injuries is the impact on the public’s view of racing in light of the series of tragedies that have beset it in recent years — Barbaro’s injury in the 2006 Preakness; the euthanization of the European champion George Washington after he broke a leg in the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Classic; and Eight Belles’ fatal breakdown.
Some of the outrage over Eight Belles’ death, which occurred at Churchill Downs after she snapped both her front ankles while galloping out after the race, has come from some predictable quarters. People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, for instance, compared racing to the illegal blood sport of dog fighting and announced plans to picket the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes unless the racing industry agreed to immediate reforms.
But it also has welled up in editorials in the New York Times and other newspapers that blasted the racing industry for not taking better care of its own. It came through in a more-muted fashion in the pages of the Los Angeles Times, which ran a two-part series this week headlined “Racing can't run from it; High-profile deaths of horses have the sport under pressure to find solutions.” And it provides the context for a 30-minute discussion of racehorse safety that will open NBC Sports’ broadcast of the Preakness on Saturday.
And so, at a time when attention should be fixed on Big Brown, an exciting colt with a legitimate shot to become racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner, racing industry leaders are instead issuing press releases touting the industry’s commitment to the safety of its performers and responding to a barrage of criticism and difficult questions from the media, lawmakers, fans and even some industry insiders.
But when asked if he and other racing leaders felt “besieged,” Alex Waldrop, president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, urged headline writers to pick a less-dramatic verb.
“We certainly are facing a challenge from a segment of our fans who are concerned about health and safety, but saying we are besieged would be a bit strong,” he said Thursday.
If not besieged, horse racing’s leadership is undoubtedly in crisis-containment mode, proactively announcing several new racehorse safety initiatives in the 12 days since Eight Belles’ met her untimely end.
At its core, the issue confronting the racing industry is simple: Are there additional steps that could be taken to protect these magnificent animal athletes from harm?
Many racing critics answer with a resounding “yes,” and say that some obvious steps would include banning all but the most benign medications, halting the racing of still-developing 2-year-olds, refocusing its breeding programs on longevity and replacing dirt tracks with synthetic racing surfaces.
But that’s where things begin to get complicated, because the racing “industry” is really a coalition of various interest groups that often have little in common.
Take the issue of synthetic tracks, for example. Many track owners remain skeptical of synthetic racing surfaces, which cost anywhere from $10 million to $15 million to install, saying they have been in use in the U.S. for only a few years and have not been fully evaluated. Some leading trainers, including Nick Zito and Bob Baffert, and influential handicappers such as the Washington Post’s Andy Beyer have landed in this camp for different reasons, the former because they say some of their horses don’t handle the new surfaces and the latter because they find races run on the new surfaces harder to predict.
The American-trained Animal Kingdom, winner of the Kentucky Derby in 2011 and the $10-million Dubai World Cup this year, is set to be retired to stud after running the Queen Anne Stakes on Tuesday.
Ramon Dominguez, a three-time Eclipse Award winner as the leading jockey in North America, retired on Thursday due to a head injury suffered in a fall earlier this year.
Horse racing roundtable: Part 1
May 17: Bob Costas leads a discussion group regarding the risks and dangers of horse racing.
Looking back at Eight Belles' race, tragic demise at the Kentucky Derby.
Triple Crown winners
The horses that have won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont in the same year.
Derby Day finery
Fashion statements fill Churchill Downs as race fans display their hats.
The Preakness: Who will win?
Check out the contenders and vote on the winner of the Preakness Stakes.