Cross-posted from Inside Portland from The Oregonian
By ANNE SAKER for The Oregonian
ON A SUNDAY in late December, a 4-year-old mare fractured her left front knee while running the sixth race at Portland Meadows. The next day, a 5-year-old gelding fractured his shoulder in the third race. The horses had to be euthanized.
Joe Crispin, one of Portland Meadows’ most successful jockeys, was riding each horse in what turned out to be its last race.
Even after a 30-year career, he said he has never become accustomed to the “terrible feeling” of an injured horse dropping underneath him.
“You’re hopeless and helpless. It happens so quick, you’re going ‘Oh, no!’ and then it’s over,” he said.
Fatal breakdowns have become a sad routine at racetracks in Oregon and nationwide over the past three decades. This season at Portland Meadows is no exception, but the sport is ramping up its efforts to crack the mystery.
Out of 3,501 horses that have entered a Portland Meadows starting gate since the season began Oct. 5, nine horses have suffered injuries while racing that were serious enough to warrant euthanasia. (emphasis added)
State officials who regulate horse racing and wagering in Oregon say that ratio is close to 50 percent higher than the estimated national average. The Oregon Racing Commission has become so alarmed about breakdowns at Portland Meadows and four other breakdowns at five county-fair tracks that the commission’s staff veterinarian began filing written reports on each death as of Jan. 1.
Oregon also has joined 22 other racing states to ban the use of performance-enhancing anabolic steroids in racehorses.
“We are not going to play games,” said Randy Evers, executive director of the Oregon Racing Commission. “I’m an absolute transparency person. If there is any fatality during the racing, or if a horse is in the paddock and knocks her head, we’re going to look into it.”
Casual horse-racing fans witnessed the shocking breakdowns of Barbaro after the 2006 Preakness Stakes and Eight Belles after last year’s Kentucky Derby. But people in the horse business say that the search for an answer has been frustrating.
Solutions have been elusive because the sport, which craves, thrives on and runs on numbers, has never kept its own centralized count of how many horses break down while racing and thus has had no clear way to link causes and effects.
The National Thoroughbred Racing Association counts about 100 horse-racing tracks across the country, including county-fair tracks that run for a week.
The few limited studies on the phenomenon have found that about two horses experience fatal breakdowns for every 1,000 horses that start a race. In Oregon, though, the number on average is closer to three fatal breakdowns for every 1,000 starts.
Roger Stevenson, who trains horses at Portland Meadows, said the breakdowns are distressing to trainers because they seem random, arising from a variety of causes.
“If we could figure out why they do it, I don’t think there’s a horseman out there who wouldn’t go for that solution by any means,” Stevenson said. “It’s almost a freak thing.”
Last summer, after the euthanasia of Eight Belles, The Jockey Club, the national thoroughbred breed registry, launched an Equine Injury Database, the first in the industry. But track participation is voluntary.
The Jockey Club also has changed the kind of whip a jockey can use to reduce the impact on the horse. And many tracks are regulating the racing horseshoe that has a small, raised “toe grab” in the front.
California is requiring all tracks to change their surfaces from dirt or turf to an artificial surface thought to be easier on horses — although initial studies indicate that breakdowns occur at about the same rate on the new surface.
The steroid ban, though discussed for years, went into effect after the trainer of Big Brown, the horse that beat the filly Eight Belles in the Derby, acknowledged the colt had run on steroids, which then were legal.
At the November meeting of the Oregon Racing Commission, Portland Meadows track veterinarian Jack Root said some horses that broke down this season had come from a summer campaign at Seattle’s Emerald Downs and might have developed microfractures on the harder surface there. Root said running on the sand at Portland Meadows — the nation’s only sand track — may have been just enough to stress the horses to a fatal breakdown.
Breeding an issue
Nationally, some experts point out that 30 years ago, a fatal breakdown at a track was almost unheard-of. Then, thoroughbreds were bred for durability as well as speed. The 1973 Triple Crown champion Secretariat, for example, retired at age 3 with 16 victories in 21 races. By comparison, Big Brown won seven of his eight starts until an October foot injury ended his racing career at age 4.
If the track years of today’s great horses are short, the careers of those that run at Portland Meadows are even shorter.
“I’d probably have to agree with the breeding issue,” said Jerry Kohls, Portland Meadows’ director of racing. “When you look back in the 1970s and even in the early 1980s, the average starts for horses was much higher. Now, it’s rare to see a horse starting 12 or 15 times.
“From what I’ve read, the breeding is more inclined to prefer speed,” he said. “They’re breeding for what they call ‘precocious speed,’ which means speed in a 2-year-old. Those are the ones that’ll go for big money at auctions.”
The breeding issue got thrown into relief at the Derby last year: All 20 entries were descendants of the prodigious sire Native Dancer. The problem is that Native Dancer heirs, such as Big Brown, have problems with their feet.
Kohls also pointed out that Portland Meadows is a smaller track that cannot compete with the purses seen at Santa Anita in California or even Emerald Downs. So, Kohls said, “We get horses that ship in from other tracks, from Golden Gate Park and stuff like that. When they can’t be competitive down there anymore, they end up over here.”
Jockey Joe Crispin cracked his hip in the fall he took when the 5-year-old gelding fatally broke down. Less than 30 days later, he was racing again — thanks, he said, to his diet and rest. But he knows that one day, he will again ride a horse that will suffer a breakdown.
“I just fall apart,” he said. “I just have to walk away from them. Not that I’m rude or just don’t care. But if I saw the horse on the ground, I probably wouldn’t ride anymore.” OregonLive.com
— Anne Saker; firstname.lastname@example.org
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