On the eve of the third leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown, the talk is quite different than it was two of the last four years when a Triple Crown was on the line. Instead, it’s the entire sport that’s on the line.
Gone is the talk about who can navigate the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes course known as Big Sandy for its deep base.
There is no talk of the Kentucky Derby winner, Country House, because he’s not here. Preakness winner War Of Will is here, but he’s not the favorite.
Horse racing in New York is among the safest in the nation, last year averaging 1.20 fatal injuries every 1,000 starts. The national average is 1.68, Santa Anita’s was 2.04, better than Churchill Downs at 2.73.
“I’ve done a lot of interviews in the last three or four weeks,” said Mark Casse, trainer of War Of Will, who at 2-1 odds is second favorite behind Tacitus at 9-5. “I would say a lot of them are because of the controversy that surrounded the Kentucky Derby. Not so much what happened in the Preakness.”
The Kentucky Derby controversy was Maximum Security becoming the first horse in 145 years to be disqualified from first place. The stewards ruled that the colt cut in front of War Of Will and almost caused the horse to fall, which would have created a chain reaction that could have killed multiple horses and seriously injured jockeys.
In the Preakness, Bodexpress lost his rider just out of the gate but continued to run in the race without interfering with any horses. While not common, it isn’t unusual that a horse continues to run after the rider falls off.
Dr. Mary Scollay, Kentucky’s equine medical director, sees these incidents as a wake-up call.
“We are having discussions right now about what to do if we have a mass casualty event at next year’s Derby,” Scollay said. “And we’re having that discussion because we didn’t have one this year. We came an angstrom away from having multiple horses on the track. We are at the tipping point. Either we get it right or we don’t move forward.”
Belinda Stronach, president and chief executive at The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita among other tracks, has proposed a series of safety reforms. In addition, most major racetrack owners have formed a coalition to address public perception when it comes to medication.
While there is no scientific evidence that links the use of Lasix to breakdowns, the perception is that fans do not want to see horses running on drugs. Lasix is used to treat exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhaging (EIPH), a common condition where horses bleed from their lungs while racing.
In California, Lasix use on race day has been reduced from 10cc to 5cc. Next year, at most tracks in the country, 2-year-olds will not be allowed to race on Lasix and in 2021 older horses in stakes races will be banned if on Lasix.
“I think there’s been some mistakes made in California and I know they are trying to correct them,” Casse said. “It has nothing to do with Lasix. Nothing whatsoever. … Woodbine [in Toronto] has some of the most lenient drug rules, but they have the least amount of breakdowns.”
Woodbine has a synthetic track, which statistics show as being safer than dirt tracks.
Trainer Tom Amoss, who will race Kentucky Oaks winner Serengeti Empress in Friday’s Acorn Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, believes Lasix is needed but is willing to adjust.
“If compromises have to be made to have the public be a believer in our sport, then I’m willing to make that compromise even if I don’t agree with it personally,” Amoss said.
Casse also would make that deal.
“I am in the same boat as Tom,” Casse said. “If that needs to be the way it’s going to be done and we need to do it to save racing, then I’m all for it.”
Another issue that has created passionate discussion is California’s proposal to take away use of the riding crop, or whip, except in instances of safety.
Jerry Bailey, a Hall of Fame jockey who is currently an NBC analyst covering the Belmont Stakes, sent a letter to Stronach urging the elimination of the whip.
“I wouldn’t have had this opinion when I was riding,” Bailey said. “I would have been against taking the whip away. I’m certain the whip and the use of the whip hasn’t caused any of the breakdowns.
“But optically it looks offensive. These horses are bred to run, so how can I make the case that I have to hit them. … What’s really offensive is when a horse is five in front or eight behind and they are hitting the horse. And I was guilty of that. … And when riders make the case it’s needed for safety. Well, in my experience — 32,000 races — maybe I needed it for safety once.”
The whip issue will be decided later this year in California. Until then, racing desperately wants to steer the conversation back to the actual races.
Perhaps, Casse has the best short-term goal.