A Tough Break for Racing
The thoroughbreds are back in action at Hollywood Park, Philadelphia Park and points in between, but the troubled horse racing industry won’t quickly outrun repercussions from the vivid accident that halted Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro’s racing career seconds into the Preakness Stakes last Saturday.
Jockey Edgar Prado pulled up the horse as soon as he realized there was a problem and a team of veterinary surgeons operated on the colt Sunday, at least temporarily saving his life.
For the record:
12:00 a.m. May 25, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 25, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Horse racing: An article in Wednesday’s Sports section said Smarty Jones ran nine races as a 3-year-old. The horse ran two races as a 2-year-old and seven as a 3-year-old.
The nationally televised race, however, showed the colt’s right hind ankle splayed at a gruesome angle to millions of viewers watching the second leg of the Triple Crown. In a sport that has had trouble drawing live crowds, it was another turnoff.
Television ratings for the Belmont Stakes, final leg of racing’s Triple Crown, June 10 are expected to plummet. Horse racing may find it even harder to attract corporate sponsors, and animal-rights groups are holding up the grim accident as proof that racehorses are being endangered by a profit-hungry industry.
Barbaro, an especially charismatic colt after winning the Derby by 6 1/2 lengths, the widest margin of victory in 60 years, was the favorite -- at the betting window and sentimentally -- before the Preakness, having been anointed as the latest four-legged savior for the troubled sport.
The accident -- which just as easily could have involved a jockey -- served as a stark reminder of the perils involved in racing 1,000-pound horses in close quarters at 40 mph, and in televising such races.
“If you’re going to fight for prime time, you have to be prepared for anything that comes along,” said Doug Reed, director of the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program.
Barbaro’s injury added to the growing debate on whether today’s racehorses are bred for speed at the expense of durability, and whether their careers are managed more with post-career breeding in mind than winning.
Years ago, championship-caliber horses ran more frequently than today’s stars. In 1941, Whirlaway raced nine times as a 3-year-old after winning the Triple Crown. In contrast, Smarty Jones, Derby and Preakness winner in 2004, ran only nine races during his 3-year-old season and then was retired with what were said to be chronically sore ankles.
Shortened careers, trainers’ skipping races that their horses might lose, and the money available to successful breeding programs all are cited as reasons there has been no Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
“They baby them,” said former jockey Steve Cauthen, who rode Affirmed. “Obviously, horses that have big stallion potential, they don’t want to get him beat.”
But Dean Richardson, the lead veterinarian in Barbaro’s surgery, rejected claims that training left the horse susceptible to injury.
“These are massive animals going fast,” he said. “There is no indication whatsoever that the prevalence of injuries in horse racing is increasing.”
Still, racing acknowledges that it is in for a rough stretch.
“It’s understandable, after an accident like this, that some people might be reluctant to watch a race,” said Jim Gluckson, a senior communications manager with the National Thoroughbred Racing Assn., a trade group that represents horse owners and breeders. “This is a story that is pulling at the heartstrings of many, many Americans.”
Barbaro, with 27 screws holding his shattered leg together, continues to recover in a high-tech veterinary hospital in Pennsylvania, south of Philadelphia.
Gretchen Jackson, Barbaro’s co-owner, told reporters Tuesday that she had broken a rule among owners “not to fall in love with the animal because it’s so painful, it’s so painful when something like this happens to you.”
Jackson added that her hope was that Barbaro would have “a painless life, that he will be able to stand as a stallion and we’ll be able to see little Barbaros.” Horse lovers across the country undoubtedly have the same hope.
“These animals are magical,” said Rodrigo Vazquez, an equine surgeon at the Helen Woodward Center in Del Mar. “They look you in the eye and they show you their heart. You feel as if you know a horse very quickly and I think people who saw even just a brief clip of Barbaro could tell what a heart and what a spirit this horse had.”
The upwelling of interest in Barbaro was evident only hours after the accident, when television trucks and reporters converged on the veterinary hospital and fans began to deliver floral bouquets, packages stuffed with carrots and apples and hand-made signs of encouragement.
The industry is hoping that Barbaro’s saga ends on a positive note, not like the 1975 tragedy that occurred when Ruffian, an unbeaten filly, challenged Foolish Pleasure, that year’s Kentucky Derby winner, in a nationally televised match race.
The race took a hellish turn when Ruffian stumbled, breaking bones in her right foreleg. Then, after emergency surgery, the frightened horse reinjured her leg and had to be euthanized.
The industry is emphasizing the dramatic advances in veterinary care that might continue to save Barbaro’s life.
Many racetracks now are equipped with ambulances that can carry injured horses to hospitals with state-of-the-art operating rooms and recovery wards.
Barbaro, for example, was suspended in a pool of water after surgery so he would be less likely to thrash and further injure himself, as Ruffian did, upon awakening.
Racing also has struggled to do what it traditionally hasn’t done very well: talk openly. Knowing that a lack of information might spark rumors and stoke anger and frustration among a concerned public, the veterinary hospital has made Richardson available for daily news briefings.
The hospital even released Barbaro’s X-rays, which show the fractured leg held together by 27 pins. By Tuesday morning, the X-rays were available online, along with a message board, where Barbaro fans can send get-well messages to the horse.
But horse racing’s core message -- everything possible is being done to save this horse’s life -- did cause some controversy. During a Monday news briefing, Richardson described the “optimal outcome” for Barbaro as being salvaged for breeding.
That prompted concerns about the level of care a lesser horse would receive after being injured in a race at a regional track.
Richardson applauded Barbaro’s owners, saying, “This horse could have absolutely no reproductive value and they would have saved this horse’s life.”
But the nationally televised Triple Crown races are the best opportunities for horse owners, breeders, trainers and jockeys to develop interest in a declining sport, and now, with Barbaro’s injury, the Belmont on June 10 looms as just another horse race.
“ABC knew the risk it was running when it bought the third leg of the Triple Crown,” said Neil Pilson, a media consultant who was with CBS in 1978, the last time a horse won the Triple Crown.
“When you buy rights to the Belmont, you look at the 11 ratings you can get when the third leg of a Triple Crown run is still there. But you also see the 4 rating that’s likely when you don’t get it. So it’s always been a crapshoot.”
Sports marketers suspect that the accident will make it tougher for horse racing to strike deals with new corporate sponsors, particularly the big spenders needed to replace credit card issuer Visa, which dropped a high-profile Triple Crown sponsorship that promised $5 million to the owners of a horse that won the Triple Crown.
“Racing lives and dies by the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont,” said Keith Bruce, chief marketing officer for SportsMark Management Group, a San Francisco marketing firm that arranges sponsorship deals. “It’s their regular season and Super Bowl all in one, but the Belmont is only a Super Bowl if you’ve got a potential Triple Crown winner. And now you don’t.”
Even so, experienced bettors aren’t expected to pull back on the Belmont Stakes. They accept injuries as part of the game, said Brian Blessing, a project manager at Las Vegas Sports Consultants, an odds-making company.
“The luster certainly is off of the race,” he said. “What happened to Barbaro is a devastating blow, but in a weird way,” the absence of a clear favorite “might actually make the Belmont a much better betting race.”
Bettors could figure that Preakness winner Bernardini is a horse to be reckoned with if he runs in New York, and that horses such as Jazil and Steppenwolfer, which ran strong in the Kentucky Derby, could contend in the longer Belmont.
The betting handle on the Belmont, though, can’t wipe out what happened in the Preakness.
Reed, of the Arizona racing program, suspects the industry will simply have to bide its time.
“All you can do is try to ride the thing out,” he said. “Some people have been upset by it, but there are a lot less of them than there would have been not that many years ago.”
Times staff writers Robyn Norwood and Diane Pucin, and the Associated Press contributed to this story.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Good genes, top performers
Complete recovery by Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro could mean big money to be made after racing.
*--* RK Stallion 2006 Chief earner, 2006 (YOB / SIRE) stud fee earnings earnings
1. Red Ransom $47,089 Electrocutionist $4,597,470 (1987 / Roberto) $3,795,000 2. Dynaformer 100,000 Barbaro 3,803,763 (1985 / Roberto) 2,203,200 3. Pleasant Tap 10,000 David Junior 3,780,665 (1985 / Pleasant Colony) 3,000,000 4. A.P. Indy 300,000 Bernardini 2,706,403 (1989 / Seattle Slew) 710,480 5. Forestry 100,000 Discreet Cat 2,541,423 (1996 / Storm Cat) 1,219,500
Source: Blood Horse magazine