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Horse racing deaths spark debate in industry

| Sunday, May 11, 2008, 12:00 p.m.

Five hours before Eight Belles' catastrophic collapse in the Kentucky Derby, a 7-year-old named Elusive King broke down in a cheap race at Suffolk Downs.

The brown gelding was destroyed by injection, his front left ankle shattered.

Unlike the national debate sparked by Eight Belles' fatal injury, Elusive King went quietly, leaving Robert Kuzmins, a relatively small-time horse owner from western Massachusetts, to mourn in private.

"It was very difficult," Kuzmins said. "I ran onto the race track. We got the horse off and took X-rays. It was the worst possible thing. We gave him something for the pain and something to eat and some water. I wanted to make him feel normal. I did whatever I could. ... Someone said to me I was trying to make myself feel better."

Two horses euthanized, hundreds of miles apart, on the same Saturday afternoon, May 3. That is, in horse racing, par for the course.

The racing industry suffers roughly 1.6 catastrophic breakdowns for every 1,000 starts, according to the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP). That equates to about 730 each year -- or two per day.

Fatal vision
Four horses have suffered breakdowns that led to their death in the past two years in the sport's most important, nationally-televised races.
Year Race Horse
2006 Preakness Stakes Barbaro
2006 Breeders Cup Pine Island
2007 Breeders Cup George Washington
2008 Kentucky Derby Eight Belles

Whether the fallen horse was Eight Belles in North America's most important race or Elusive King in a bottom-level claimer, thoroughbred officials are on call to make the sport safer.

"People are overreacting (about Eight Belles,)" Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey said. "But I can see their point. We have to continually work to strengthen the breed and make race tracks safer."

Eight Belles' fatal breakdown, which comes with 2006 Derby winner Barbaro's death fresh on the public mind, amplified claims of cruelty in the sport. A New York Times column compared horse racing to dog fighting. Message boards are packed with negative comments about a sport already struggling with its image. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has demonstrated in Kentucky and plans to rally in Baltimore prior to the May 17 Preakness Stakes.

With that backdrop, undefeated Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown, potentially the sport's next great horse, will try to take another step toward ending a 30-year Triple Crown drought.

"Everyone is very concerned and upset about what happened at the Derby," said Sally Baker, spokesperson for the AAEP, a Lexington, Ky.-based non-profit organization dedicated to the health and welfare of horses. "Any time you have an injury like that, it's upsetting. We are concerned about what can be done and what more needs to be done."

McGaughey knows the risks of the sport. The New York-based trainer saddled the filly Pine Island, who broke down in the Breeders' Cup Distaff two years ago and was euthanized at the track.

That injury was followed by the fatal breakdown in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic, by European turf star George Washington.

During the past eight most important, widely viewed horse-racing days -- the Triple Crown and the Breeders' Cup -- four horses have suffered a fatal injury on national television. That's a 50 percent chance of witnessing a horse die on the sport's biggest stage.

And that doesn't include euthanizing Mending Fences during the 2007 Preakness undercard -- less than an hour after the inaugural Barbaro Stakes -- and a dislocated ankle sustained by Chelokee on this year's Kentucky Oaks undercard. Chelokee is being given a 60 percent chance of survival.

Two show jumpers were put down at the Rolex Kentucky 3-Day event two weeks ago in Lexington after crashing into fences.

So, while Barbaro's struggle for survival was an inspiration to many casual and hard-core fans, Eight Belles' death struck a more sensitive cord.

She was only the second Derby horse to break down during the Run for the Roses since 1949 (The other, Flip Sal in 1974, survived).

The filly was running against boys in the Derby and the unusual circumstances of her breakdown -- fracturing both front ankles galloping out a quarter-mile after finishing second -- compounded the anguish.

"Clearly, we've had some very high-profile events that are very damaging," said Dr. Mary Scollay, a track veterinarian at Calder and Gulfstream in Florida. "It is very important that we do much better."

Scollay said the national rate of catastrophic breakdowns has remained consistent over the years.

In response to the outcry from Eight Belles' injury, The Jockey Club last week formed a seven-member Thoroughbred Safety Committee to study equine health.

Chairman Ogden Mills Phipps said the Jockey Club, the breed registry for North American thoroughbreds, plans to review breeding practices, medication and to recommend ways to improve health and safety in the sport.

Critics say specific areas where safety could be enhanced are more races on softer synthetic surfaces and grass; breeding that emphasizes stamina over speed; uniform medications laws and banning race-day medications and racing horses at older ages.

Barbara Geittmann, executive director of the Illinois-based Hooved Animal Humane Society, said steps can be taken to improve what she calls "a beautiful sport."

"Our organization isn't for banning racing; we're not that radical," she said. "I don't see anything wrong with the racing industry, per se. But I would like to see them race when they are five or six (years old), not when they are two."

Barbaro's death helped spur the installation of synthetic surfaces at tracks in Kentucky, Illinois and California, among others.

Scollay, the Florida-based vet, is putting together the equine injury reporting system, the sport's first uniform database of its kind. She presented her early findings at the second Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse summit, held in March.

Based on six months of data, catastrophic injuries were reduced by 27 percent on synthetic surfaces, or Polytrack.

Respected equine surgeon Dr. Larry Bramlage, the on-site veterinarian at the Kentucky Derby, dismissed the notion that a synthetic surface would have prevented Eight Belle's breakdown.

"I don't think we can blame the injury on the racetrack," he said. "She was done with the race. I don't think the forces on her legs pulling up would be any different on dirt or artificial surface."

Bramlage believes running against 19 colts didn't figure into Eight Belles' fate.

"One injury is not an epidemic," he said. "It's not like we see this as a routine. In fact, I've never seen it before."

McGaughey said the outcry over the recent fatalities isn't justified.

"I think it's been blown out of proportion a little bit," he said. "What the general public doesn't realize is the care these horses get day in and day out. In most cases, they are getting the best treatment any animal could get."

Kuzmins, 50, has owned about 30 horses. Elusive King was the first one he had to put down.

"It's preposterous to bring up Barbaro and Eight Belles, and say it happens all over the place," he said. "It's an unfortunate thing that can happen on any race track. But you'd have to be living on another planet to think something wrong is not going to happen during the meet. You look at some tracks, like Beulah Park. They drop one after the other."

That, Scollay said, needs to change. She said researchers at Texas A&M are studying DNA to identify genes in horses predisposed to catastrophic injuries. She said the "human aspect" of safety is improving. Horsemen with day-to-day contact with the horses -- trainers, jockeys and grooms -- can receive continuing medical education to better spot early maladies.

"You may hear the assertion that nothing is being done," Scollay said. "A lot is being done. It just takes time."

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