Breakdowns a dark side of horse racing

Horsemen say thoroughbred racing hasn’t gotten more dangerous for the four-legged athletes. But raci

Horsemen say thoroughbred racing hasn’t gotten more dangerous for the four-legged athletes. But racing fans are still shocked and saddened when a horse goes down during a race, as Eight Belles did during the Kentucky Derby on May 3.

“It’s definitely disturbing. I don’t think there’s any way to say that is isn’t,” said Sara Ellis, owner of Dogdom, a new canine boutique on Broadway.

“It’s a tragedy, and possibly an unnecessary tragedy,” agreed Mike Zimmerman, who owns Saratoga Coffee Traders on Broadway.

But the filly’s death shortly after she broke down on May 3 is a rare occurrence overall, said those in the business.

An injury that results in a horse being euthanized after a race happens about one time in a thousand, said several people involved in the industry. Less serious and treatable injuries are more common.

“Ninety-eight percent of the time they don’t end up dying right there like that,” said trainer Chuck Simon.

And while accidents during high-profile races like the Kentucky Derby make the headlines, injuries are far more common at lesser tracks that attract lower-quality racehorses, Simon said.

Criticism that breeders are making thoroughbreds too thin and light is unfounded, said Dr. Luis Castro, an equine veterinarian who works at Saratoga Race Course during the training season and in Florida the rest of the year.

“If you look at photographs of thoroughbreds in the past, like 100 years ago, I don’t think they’ve changed any. Horses have always gone 40 miles per hour. You always wonder how those little legs can stand that weight and that speed.”

All horses are fragile, not just thoroughbreds, said Simon, a Kentucky-based horse trainer who races in Saratoga every summer and is a Ballston Lake native. But thoroughbreds are especially fragile.

“If you ever looked at a thoroughbred’s ankles, they’re really small, even smaller than ours,” added Thomas Mina, a Greenfield breeder who also races horses. “And there’s 1,100 pounds at 38 miles per hour.”

That fragility isn’t modern breeders’ fault, Simon said. “People have always bred for fast horses. No one’s ever bred to get a slow horse.”

And breeders don’t operate in a vacuum. “They’re breeding for the market. They’re breeding for what the customers want. If they can’t sell their horses, they go out of business,” he said.

Simon said today’s 24-hour news cycle also keeps stories like that of Eight Belles in front of the public longer. “The spotlight glares a little brighter than it used to. Horses get hurt all the time, just like football players and baseball players.”

The difference, said business owner Zimmerman, who has lived in Saratoga Springs for 12 years and enjoyed going to the races with his family, is that human athletes choose to get involved in the sport.

“People are pushing themselves. The horses are not trying to achieve anything for themselves.”

Mina, who also races horses, might disagree, saying Eight Belles broke down because she pushed herself too hard.

“They’ve got fire in their hearts and they’re very competitive,” he said of the rare great racehorses like Eight Belles.

Talented young fillies that race against colts sometimes hurt themselves by trying too hard, he said. Fillies develop more slowly and may not be ready to face a colt at three years old.

That’s what he said happened to Ruffian, a filly who broke down and was euthanized the day after a match race against Derby winner Foolish Pleasure on July 5, 1975.

Mina saw Ruffian race as a two-year-old at Belmont. “She was incredible looking. She was just a big beautiful filly.”

The hard-packed track at Churchill Downs also had something to do with Eight Belles’ fall, Mina said. “Racetracks used to be deeper, and you didn’t have these tragedies taking place that often.”

Synthetic track surfaces might provide a solution, and have been shown in some studies to reduce catastrophic injuries. The New York Racing Association is studying polytracks but hasn’t committed to installing a synthetic surface at any of its tracks.

If it did put in a polytrack, the one-mile Belmont training track would be the most likely candidate, because it currently is used year-round, said NYRA spokesman John Lee.

“A lot of [trainers] are open to training on them but not as enthusiastic about racing on them,” Lee said of the polytracks.

Another solution is for people in the industry to be involved with organizations that look out for the horses’ welfare, Ellis said.

Medical technology also makes it easier to prevent catastrophic injuries, Castro said.

The veterinarian has digital radiography and digital ultrasound on his truck, which he can use to examine and diagnose horses right in the stall.

“I think every week we’re able to pick out injuries that could be catastrophic. We change the horse’s training, either by taking them out of training or reducing his training,” Castro said.

Categories: Schenectady County

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