Ever since Go For Wand's gruesome accident on Breeders' Cup Day in New York last Oct. 27, the people who run thoroughbred racing have been going through a public relations nightmare that rivals the race-fixing scandals of the late 1970s.
No amount of spin-doctoring can mitigate the impact of death on the racetrack. Go For Wand, Great Communicator, Baldomero, Mr. Nickerson and several other horses of lesser reputation have met with violent ends. In the last month, jockeys Laffit Pincay, Gary Stevens, Chris Antley and Jacinto Vasquez have paid the price with a variety of injuries.
Who is to blame? Fingers are pointing in all directions. Is it the track surfaces? Greedy owners? Negligent trainers? Excessive medication? The frailty of the breed itself?
The latest to speak out is California Horse Racing Board commissioner Rosemary Ferraro, who has been in the front ranks in the crusade to reform the state's equine drug testing for the past three years. As chairman of the CHRB's medication committee, Ferraro has called a special meeting Dec. 4 to hear testimony on "the unprecedented number of breakdowns of race horses this past year.
"Right now I think this is more urgent to deal with than any of the other things we've got going," Ferraro said.
Ferraro conceded that her committee possesses no hard evidence that there have been more breakdowns this year than in previous seasons. She said the CHRB staff is in the process of compiling such data.
Still, Ferraro insists, the public perception of an epidemic of injuries is a major concern.
"We've had a lot of complaints from fans who have seen horses die right on the track," Ferraro said. "Some of them have said they contacted animal right groups. It's been very distressing."
There is the possibility that Ferraro's meeting could degenerate into yet another public bashing of Santa Anita Park management for the condition of its racing surfaces during the recently concluded Oak Tree meeting. As one trainer put it, "The horse ambulance was on the track so much in the mornings that it disrupted everyone's training schedule."
Ferraro insisted, however, that track surfaces should not be the lone scapegoat.
"There are some horses who are made to run too often," she said. "And there are sore-legged horses who shouldn't be running at all."
Ed Friendly, the noted television producer and veteran racehorse owner, agreed that some people place their pocketbooks first and their horses second. But he is not willing to let racetrack management off the hook.
"A horse does not fully mature until it is 4 years old," Friendly said. "Since the economics of the game force people to race immature horses, it is up to the racetracks to provide the safest possible surfaces.
"If I were the 'czar' of racing, I would do several things to protect horses," Friendly continued. "And the number one thing I would do would be to run the Kentucky Derby in November instead of May, to at least give the horses a chance to approach maturity. As long as there is a Derby for 3-year-olds each spring, there will be people running their 2-year-olds too much."
Friendly conceded that changing the date of the Derby is about as likely as tinkering with Christmas. There are a number of other sacred cows that defy meddling as well, even if it means creating a safer environment for racehorses. When the Ferraro committee convenes its hearings on breakdowns, look for the following subjects to remain untouchable:
--The racing calendar. Year-round racing is a cash cow for the state and supported by most owners and trainers--but it has been hard on horses.
True, studies have shown that horses are racing no more often than they were 20 years ago. But they are training longer, pounding their joints on suspect surfaces, and going without significant time off unless forced to the sidelines by illness or injury.
--Trainer qualifications. Supposedly, there is a rigorous examination for prospective trainers, despite the fact that a freshly licensed fellow once had to be shown how to saddle a horse. According to local stewards, far more people are rejected than are granted a license to train.
Why, then, are there so many "licensed" trainers running around who cannot attract any semblance of a clientele? At the Oak Tree meeting, just for example, there were 357 trainers who started horses. Yet of that number, 219 (61%) had fewer than five starters in the 242 races offered at the meet.
--The breeding industry. Is the product flawed? More than two decades of controlled medication in California may have created artificial credentials, as chronically unsound animals have become good racehorses with perfectly legal and morally defensible medical advances.
But when those same horses are allowed to enter the gene pool as stallions and broodmares, their unsoundness may be passed on. Yet breeders, large and small, maintain their divine right to continue producing animals of questionable quality in large numbers.
Commissioner Ferraro finally was moved to call her special meeting at the sight of five horses going down at Hollywood Park in a chain reaction spill on Nov. 14. One horse was fatally injured and Gary Stevens suffered a fractured right elbow and deep bruises to his lower back.
Ten days after the fall, Stevens will return to action this Saturday at Hollywood Park to continue his quest for the national money-winning title. He worked three horses on Wednesday morning--Jovial, Pleasant Tap and Run to Jenny--and pronounced himself ready to ride.
"I've already heard people say I'm coming back too soon," Stevens said Wednesday from his Arcadia home. "But I've been under the care of the top man, and he wouldn't let me go back to riding if I was anything less than 100%."
Dr. Robert Kerlan has been treating Stevens' various injuries the past week, giving special attention to the severe bruise where the rider was kicked on his backside.