View From The Eighth Pole: A Sport In The Crosshairs

Oct. 27, 1990, was the most somber day I’ve spent at a racetrack. That was when the New York Racing Association hosted the Breeders’ Cup at Belmont Park for the first time on a sunny but cold afternoon. Two horses perished in the day’s first championship race when Mr. Nickerson suffered an apparent heart attack going into the far turn of the Sprint and a trailing horse, Shaker Knit, tripped over the stricken horse and met a sudden death. Those deaths were mostly out of sight from the public.

Two races later, however, fans at Belmont Park and those watching the national telecast on NBC were horrified when Go For Wand, battling for the lead with Bayakoa in deep stretch of the Distaff, suffered a gruesome leg fracture and went down in a heap, then scrambled to her feet and tried to finish the race on three legs. She was euthanized on the track.

The rest of the afternoon was something of a blur. The blank stares and reddened eyes of fellow journalists, horsemen and fans are seared into the memory more than the brilliant ride of Lester Piggott aboard Royal Academy in the Mile or Unbridled’s redemptive victory in the Classic.

Though the crowd was much smaller and the horses running were unknown to most, this past Sunday at Del Mar in Southern California felt similar to that awful day nearly 30 years ago. Three times in the first six races the equine ambulance was called upon to retrieve stricken horses. Two of the three runners – the 3-year-old maiden Ghost Street and a claiming horse named Prayer Warrior – were injured to the point they could not be saved. Both were euthanized after evaluation by equine veterinarians. A third horse, the 5-year-old mare Princess Dorian, making her 23rd start while running for an $8,000 claiming tag, was scheduled to undergo surgery on Monday to see if she could be saved for a life after racing.

No one needs to be told that these injuries come at a critical time for our sport, particularly in Southern California, where racing and training deaths at Santa Anita – earlier this year and most recently at the Breeders’ Cup when Mongolian Groom suffered a fatal injury in the Classic – have put racing in the crosshairs of animal rights extremists and sympathetic politicians. Before the sun disappeared on the horizon late Sunday afternoon, local television stations from San Diego sent camera crews to Del Mar and the incidents were lead stories on Sunday evening and Monday morning newscasts.

After an unprecedented safe summer meeting at Del Mar when there were zero racing fatalities and, to my knowledge, not a single afternoon run by the horse ambulance, the realities of racing came crashing down like a bludgeon on people who care about the horses and the sport. Call it bad luck or the law of averages catching up to Del Mar, it was a brutal and tragic day for those who cared for the injured or dead horses and for anyone who witnessed it.

The anguish, the shaking heads, the blank looks on many faces were not unlike those I remember from that Belmont Park Breeders’ Cup of 1990. The difference is that the stakes are much higher today than they were then. There are real fears in California that horse racing’s days may be numbered. And if California goes the way of now defunct Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and greyhound racing – the latter of which has been explicitly banned in at least 14 states – will it be the only domino to fall?

Three years after Go For Wand’s death at Belmont Park, the late Bill Nack wrote a profound piece in Sports Illustrated entitled “The Breaking Point.” The article – tying liberal medication policies with catastrophic injuries in horses – put the multiple Eclipse Award-winning author in disfavor with many in the industry, especially those who didn’t believe racing had a problem. But Nack was right.

One of the experts quoted in that 1993 piece was Dr. Gregory Ferraro, a racetrack veterinarian and surgeon who left his lucrative practice a few years earlier out of disillusionment with what he called “rampant” drug use.

“I stood up for the horsemen the first time ’60 Minutes’ came around,” Ferraro told Nack, referring to a segment on horse racing breakdowns that aired on the news program years earlier. “I said, ‘Don’t take the Bute away. Don’t take the Lasix away.’ And now I feel I was wrong, because I see what’s happened 15 years later. It led us down the wrong path. It opened the gate. One little step at a time, it takes you out there. Somewhere you’ve got to draw the line, and the easiest place to draw the line and protect the horse is to say, ‘None.’”

Ferraro would become director of the Center for Equine Health and associate director of the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at the University of California, Davis. This past June he was appointed to the California Horse Racing Board by Gov. Gavin Newsom, and Ferraro is expected to be elected chairman of the regulatory board at the CHRB’s next regularly scheduled meeting on Nov. 21.

His appointment is the best thing that could have happened to California racing, given the current circumstances. Ferraro figures to be a voice of experience, knowledge and reason, acting as a buffer between those in government who might be inclined toward knee-jerk reactions to media coverage and public outcries to every racing fatality.

Ferraro knows the extraordinary steps that California racetracks and the regulatory board have taken this year, among other things reducing therapeutic drug use and increasing veterinary scrutiny of horses during racing and training. Those changes have made California a national leader in horse welfare and safety reforms, providing a blueprint for other states to follow. They haven’t and never will end all racing and training fatalities.

Ferraro also knows, I’m sure, that the patience of the public and government officials in California is wearing thin, that racing cannot afford days like we had at Del Mar on Sunday.

That’s my view from the eighth pole.

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