Cross-posted from St. Louis Today
WRITTEN BY TODD FRANKEL
COLLINSVILLE, Illinois — Stall 67 was empty. It was being kept that way, a reminder of what went wrong.
“Superstition,” horse trainer James R. Childers explained as he walked by the stalls that make up his stable on the backstretch at Fairmount Park Race Track.
Childers, 63, has trained horses here for nine years. He’s been in the business for 30. This has been his hardest yet.
The empty stall belonged to Shakkarena. She was a bay mare, a decent runner. Childers trains up to 30 racehorses at a time for a host of owners, but horses have personalities and trainers have favorites, and he was partial to that mare. He planned to retire her from racing after this season. “She was kind of the barn pet,” he said.
On Aug. 27, in the third race at Fairmount, Shakkarena broke down. That’s the blunt racing term. She shattered a leg bone. She collapsed to the dirt on the final turn. She was euthanized on the spot, a tarp blocking the view of fans in the grandstand.
Shakkarena became the fifth horse in four months to die at Fairmount, according to state records. Childers was the trainer for three of them. Was it bad luck? Or the sign of a problem? He knew the questions floated out there, far from the insular world of horse racing, where the deaths were more likely to be seen as a dreaded, but understood part of the sport.
For years, the horse racing industry avoided discussion of breakdowns. Today, the problem attracts more scrutiny amid racing’s own calls for reform, propelled by the high-profile fatal injuries suffered by horses at the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.
But the issue truly plays out in the nation’s thousands of smaller races. Fourteen racehorses on average suffer fatal breakdowns each week across the country. Now, Childers finds himself part of the debate.
Nationwide, the racing industry is under pressure to step up its testing procedures and further restrict the use of drugs. The issue was a major topic at a Jockey Club national meeting last month. It has reached the point that, “Clearly our wagering handle and our business are being compromised,” said club chairman Ogden Mills Phipps.
The rate of fatal racing injuries has remained fairly constant — and still too high for some. Last year, it was 1.92 deaths for every 1,000 starts.
Researchers are analyzing the data to learn what factors play a role in racehorse injuries, said Dr. Mary Scollay, equine medical director at the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, who led the effort to create the database. It’s still early, but Scollay said already there were signs that the risk of injury falls the younger a horse begins racing. Also, synthetic track surfaces are safer than grass, which are safer than dirt.
But it is also clear that breakdowns are “multifactorial,” Scollay said. No dominant cause, and so no easy solution.
The use of medications in racehorses is another controversial issue. States regulate the use of painkillers and steroids in horses, but with wildly varying standards. Illinois has adopted most of the model rules set by the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium. But those rules still allow horses to race with trace amounts of certain painkillers and diuretics.
But not everyone is convinced by the industry’s talk.
“They say they want to clean up their act,” said Vivian Grant, president of the International Fund for Horses, a horse welfare group in Louisville, Ky. She remains skeptical.
“Yes, it’s a beautiful sport,” Grant said. “But it can be done better.”