Tracking the horses for safety
The gates fly open, the announcer barks, “And they’re off!” and six superbly fit, muscle-bound thoroughbred racehorses burst forth, their hooves drumming the track, replaying the sport’s ancient anthem in rumbling thunder.
Seconds later, two vehicles peel out in chase, their wheels churning up a spray of tiny black balls of fiber, wax and silt that make up Hollywood Park’s synthetic track.
One is an ambulance, there in the rare case a jockey is injured. The other is a truck containing track veterinarian Jill Bailey, who is there for the equine athletes.
Like most everyone else at the track, Bailey’s eyes are focused on the action in front of her -- only she doesn’t care about the order in which the horses finish.
Only how and whether they finish.
Professional sports all offer a certain level of medical care, but horse racing is different. When these athletes are injured, it is quite often mortally -- the risk of high-strung, somewhat unpredictable, 1,000-pound animals barreling through tight quarters on legs about as thin as a human forearm.
Bailey keeps the speedometer near 40 -- about the speed of the horses -- and her ears to a radio connected to three track officials who have the benefit of an elevated perch, binoculars and six television feeds showing different angles of the track.
If there is a problem, they hope to spot it early -- a hitch in a horse’s stride, a jockey pulling up, a sudden change in the order of the field.
Looking for trouble.
“It’s a side of the business none of us like,” says Dennis Moore, a track consultant who has been around Hollywood Park for 40 years.
For Bailey, the track officials and equine ambulance driver Tony Allen, the best days of racing are not when 20-1 longshots lead to big payoffs and photo finishes leave anxious betters breathless.
They pray for quiet, hope for the mundane.
On this recent day, there are 65 horses scheduled to run in eight races, a typically sparse crowd enjoying Chamber of Commerce weather and dollar specials on hot dogs, soda and beer.
In the morning, Bailey and another veterinarian assigned by the California Horse Racing Board inspected the horses. If they don’t pass, they don’t race.
Scott Cheney, Tom Ward and Kim Sawyer, race officials with 53 years of experience between them, have now settled into their seven-stories-high crow’s nest above the press box.
Cheney watches through binoculars, Ward and Sawyer on a wall of TVs.
Allen, an upbeat man with a concrete smile and a neatly trimmed goatee, watches the races while parked in the shade along the backstretch, two radios on his hip so he can hear everyone.
It’s not until the sixth race that anyone hears anything of medical consequence.
Suddenly, Cheney’s voice crackles over the receiver: “Doc, six is dropping out pretty fast.”
Bailey’s focus tightens. Most of the time, she can see irregularities in the race, but not often a troubled horse’s number. Allen’s attention peaks too.
But, thankfully, this time it’s a false alarm.
Had Cheney spotted something catastrophic -- so many race fans remember Barbaro’s right leg shattering in the 2006 Preakness or Eight Belles suffering two broken ankles in last year’s Kentucky Derby -- he might have said, “Six went wrong.”
Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board, says there is about one horse racing fatality for every 600 starts on the Southern California circuit -- an average that, because of advances in medical treatment and equipment, is about half of what it used to be.
Still, it happens. From July 1, 2007, through June 30, 2008, there were 137 race fatalities at California tracks, according to the California Horse Racing Board’s annual report.
In the three years before that, the average was 149. This year, the preliminary numbers look to be less than 130, Arthur says.
“We’ve made progress,” says Dr. C. Wayne McIlwraith, who with Dr. Larry Bramlage is an on-call veterinarian at the Breeders’ Cup each year.
“Every horse with a severe injury was euthanized 20 years ago.”
The first task for Bailey when she reaches an injured horse is to make sure the jockey is out of harm’s way and that the horse is calmed. She has rubbing alcohol and ice water to cool the animal if need be, plus several solutions to sedate a horse in pain.
Preferably, there is time to confer with the horse’s trainer or private veterinarian. But in cases of the most severe injuries, Bailey has the option of putting the horse down right there on the track.
Otherwise, Allen is called in and the horse is moved to an open-air enclosure called the “blue room” that is set up in a corporation yard next to the racing oval.
The decision to euthanize a horse can be complicated. There are stakeholders -- owners, trainers and insurance companies.
Bailey doesn’t always agree with the final decision, because an owner might want to save a suffering horse because it’s valuable, or have a salvageable horse put down because it would be a financial burden to the owner.
“Sometimes it’s strictly an economic decision; sometimes it’s much more than that,” Bailey says.
Without the equine ambulance, those owners would have fewer options. The vehicles, which cost about $90,000, are equipped with a water cooling system and hydraulics that can drop the rear end to the ground for easy loading.
But as is often the case for medical advancements in horse racing, it took the death of a horse -- the legendary filly Ruffian, who went down during a 1975 match race at Belmont Park -- to create the idea that helps save them.
So far so good on this day at Hollywood. Neither Bailey nor Allen has been summoned onto the track.
Then, in the final race of the day, a nerve-racking scene unfolds. As the field turns for home and reaches the quarter pole, eight of the nine horses are within two lengths of the lead, all with a chance to win.
Bunched racehorses driving full bore four wide to the finish line, their jockeys maneuvering in traffic as they try to summon every ounce of their mount’s effort, can be a recipe for disaster.
But again, the race ends cleanly and the horses gallop out and return to the paddock area all looking healthy.
In the 55 days of Hollywood Park’s meeting, which ended Sunday, 3,857 horses have raced, 16 have had to be taken off by ambulance, and five have been euthanized because of race-related injuries.
But on this day Allen and his ambulance haven’t moved.
It has been a good day, a quiet day, and Allen considers himself and horse racing a big winner.
“That’s what we want,” he says. “That’s what we look forward to.”