Horse racing has grim underside
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It happened again a week or so ago, like some hideous clockwork. A thoroughbred leaves the gate at Penn National, a picture of muscle and speed, and soon he stumbles, rupturing the tendons that support his right front leg.
The jockey pulls up, trying to slow the animal's instinctive sprint and preserve his leg -- and his life -- but it's too late. This horse will be dead by night's end.
The requisite somber huddle follows the injury. A track vet, the horse's trainer and the owner conclude that this animal must be put down. The thoroughbred is carted from the track, and later a vet administers a lethal dose of barbiturates and heart-stopping drugs, similar to the cocktail that's delivered to death row convicts. A half-ton carcass eventually is sent to Harrisburg for drug and tissue testing, and life at the track races on.
The sight of Barbaro's fractured leg twisting above the Preakness track is already fading into the collective memory of racing fans, relieved that the stallion seems to be doing well. But while his story may have a happy ending, most will not. In Pennsylvania alone, hundreds of racing thoroughbreds have been destroyed in the last 10 years -- at least 500, and maybe many more.
This is the sad, unavoidable side of horse racing. It is well known to jockeys and trainers, but seldom witnessed by the sport's fans and bettors, who will gather today to watch New York's Belmont Stakes, the third leg of racing's Triple Crown.
"On any track, on any given day, you'll see a catastrophic breakdown," said Jerry Pack, track veterinarian at Penn National Race Course near Harrisburg. He would know -- he's worked at Penn National in East Hanover, Dauphin County, for 10 years, and he's seen at least 262 deadly "breakdowns," as the injuries are called in racing circles.
A breakdown, by industry definition, is followed by euthanasia within 24 hours. Thoroughbreds euthanized several days after an injury also are casualties of the sport, but they don't show up on racetrack breakdown reports.
Let it be said that most races go off without a hitch. For every 1,000 times that horses start a race, maybe two will break down and be euthanized.
The national range for tracks is between 1.6 and 2.2 breakdowns for every 1,000 starters (one race, with 15 horses, equals 15 starters). At Penn National, the average is 1.8. At Philadelphia Park, the state's other thoroughbred track, the breakdown rate is 1.7 per 1,000.
But over hundreds of races and thousands of starts, the breakdowns add up, as do the injuries that cause them -- primarily broken ankle bones, but sometimes ruptured tendons, splintered forelegs and even fractured skulls, necks or shoulders.
At Penn National, there are, on average, 26 breakdowns each racing season, enough so that, if you went to the track every day for two weeks, you'd likely witness a leg injury so devastating that the horse would have to be destroyed.
At Philadelphia Park, there are about 25 breakdowns each year, about 255 over the last decade.
Many injuries occur when a horse is pushing through a turn, its weight distributed unevenly among its legs. Beyond that, little is predictable.
"I've seen horses that break down on their first start, horses that break down on the 165th start," said Dr. Pack. "It happens to 2-year-olds and 13-year-olds."
It happens to also-rans, it happens to top horses -- Pennsylvania's racehorse of the year from 2000, named Dha Pog, was put down after its right leg was fractured.
Weather and track conditions are as much a factor as a horse's age and experience. At Philadelphia Park Racetrack in Bensalem, a rash of breakdowns in the first two months of 2004 was blamed on the winter weather and track problems caused by thawing frost. In that short stretch of time, 12 horses were euthanized following races, and another one was destroyed after sustaining a training injury.
"A couple of degrees either way can change the entire complexion of the racing surface," said Sal Sinatra, director of racing at Philadelphia Park. Racing at Philadelphia Park begins at 12:30 p.m., so Mr. Sinatra and others must decide in the morning whether the track is satisfactory and races can be held that day.
He walks a fine line -- looking out for the well-being of the horses, as well as the jockeys, who don't get paid if they don't race. "The jockeys are here to make a living," he said. "But they aren't there to hurt their horses."
Also contributing to the injury rate: Thoroughbreds are trained, and raced, differently today than they were 30 years ago. Today, most regional racetracks favor short, one-turn sprints over long-course endurance tests.
"With the shorter race, we try to get a lot more speed out of the horse," Mr. Sinatra said. "That puts more stress on the horses."
Like health care for humans, health care for horses is improving each year, and it's possible to save horses today that two decades ago would have been euthanized on the spot. Surgery techniques and critical care procedures have been improved, and more therapies are available -- shock wave therapy, for example, can accelerate bone and tissue healing.
Bones can be fused and foot fractures are easier to fix today than they were years ago. New anesthetics are being developed. Some horses, for a price, can be outfitted with an artificial limb, though it's still a rare practice. Special external leg braces, developed by veterinary surgeons at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, have been saving racehorses for the last decade.
But often, the decision to save a horse comes down to cost. Barbaro is worth saving because his owners have the money and his stud fees will be high. But when the horse is racing for small jackpots, or if it's a gelding -- a horse with no mating prospects -- it's not worth spending $50,000 or more for surgery and weeks of hospitalization and therapy.
"It's like totalling a car," Mr. Sinatra said. "You decide to have it totaled because it's not worth the repair."
In mid-May, the staff at Philadelphia Park had to make just such a decision -- a thoroughbred named Arlington Hall was able to finish a race, but a post-race exam revealed bone breaks. The horse was destroyed.
Even with improved surgery techniques, some horses are injured beyond repair. When one leg is broken, the other three have a difficult time supporting the extra weight. Keeping a horse immobilized and drugged might keep it alive, but it isn't terribly humane -- horses are built for constant motion.
So trainers and track mangers focus on preventive maintenance. Some racetracks are experimenting with synthetic track surfaces, a combination of rubber and sand, that is less susceptible to freezing and other imperfections common to dirt tracks.
On the medical side, track vets can use ultrasound to determine whether a horse's tendons are in good shape, said Dr. Corinne Sweeney, a vet at the New Bolton Center. Worn tendons can precede a fracture -- noticing wear and tear ahead of time can save a horse's life.
There's a "heightened attitude toward prevention," she said. "Any injury is one too many."
And yet injuries will persist, despite advances in track care and training, as long as men and women pit thoroughbreds against each other.
Groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals favor a ban on horse racing, but as that seems unlikely, horses will continue to run, in races big and small, at the 90 or so thoroughbred racetracks in North America. And each year, between 700 and 800 racehorses will suffer broken legs, and then be killed.
"They're a fragile animal," Mr. Sinatra said.
First Published June 10, 2006 12:00 am