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At the races - Surface unlikely to have been factor in tragedy

May 11, 2008|By Larry Yanos

Does the racing surface play any part in catastrophic injuries to thoroughbred race horses?

According to a national wire story last week, Mick Peterson - an engineer from the University of Maine - says, "Yes."

Peterson said studies on the safety of racing surfaces cited numbers produced in a database compiled from 60 racetracks by Florida veterinarian Dr. Mary Scollay for the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation in Lexington. Ky.

"We're seeing a 25-percent reduction of catastrophic fractures on synthetic tracks," Peterson said.

Those figures, cited recently in the wake of Eight Belles' breakdown after the Kentucky Derby on May 3 at Churchill Downs, show 1.47 deaths per 1,000 starts on synthetics and 2.07 deaths per 1,000 starts on dirt tracks.

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The Kentucky Derby is run on a dirt track.

However, Dr. Larry Bramlage, the on-call veterinarian at Churchill Downs during the Kentucky Derby, said he didn't believe the racing surface played any part in the mishap involving Eight Belles.

"I don't think you can blame the injury on the racetrack or say that the Polytrack would have prevented it," Dr. Bramlage said. "When we talk about the difference between racetracks, we are normally talking about long-term, accumulation of wear and tear, and so this is not like Eight Belles was deep in the middle of a stretch battle and hit a bad step. She was done with the race, we're all the way through the end, and I don't think the forces on her legs pulling up would be any different on dirt or artificial surface.

"If this was going to happen, I doubt whether it would have made any difference. The thing that we notice on tracks that have a high rate of catastrophic injuries, when you put Polytrack on, is a lack of these bad-step catastrophic injuries, but she's not in the meat of a race, she's pulling up at the end. I doubt whether it would have been any different. She could have been on the grass or dirt or anywhere."

Danny Wright, a former jockey and now a state steward at Charles Town Races & Slots, said the incident involving Eight Belles has been a emotional one with everyone offering an opinion.

"Very unfortunate," Wright said. "She ran her heart out and then this happened."

Some have questioned whether the filly was physically fit to run a 1 1/4-mile race against the boys.

"There's no way I would put any blame on trainer Larry Jones or the ownership, this was a top quality race horse and there's no way they would jeopardize her by placing her in a race if they had any questions at all," Wright said. "Sometimes, these horses train so well they exceed their own expectations. The horse obviously had a great deal of heart and the will to win - that's the competitive nature of the animal. She was sound and possibly overextended herself, causing the injury."

Wright also defended jockey Gabriel Saez.

"A good rider knows when a horse is struggling," Wright said. "He would have stopped the horse in a heartbeat if he felt uncomfortable during the race. These things happen. Unfortunate, but it happens. This was a great race horse. She put up a tremendous effort."

In a statement from Delaware Park, Saez said, "I remain heartbroken over Eight Belles, and I want to let her many fans know that she never gave me the slightest indication before or during the race that there was anything bothering her. All I could sense under me was how eager she was to race. I was so proud of her performance, and of the opportunity to ride her in my first Kentucky Derby, all of which adds to my sadness. Riding right now at Delaware Park and being around the horses and other jockeys is good therapy for me."

Dr. Wayne McIlwraith, a professor and director of the Orthopedic Research Center at Colorado State University, said that regardless of the scientific knowledge becoming available, people still need to select race horses for durability and not so much for speed.

"People are buying the fastest horse and we're at the critical stage of effectiveness of racing versus makeup of the body," he said. "We may have gone too far evolving to the fastest, lightest animal."

It will be at least two more weeks before additional information is known about what caused Eight Belles to break down. A lab at the University of Kentucky has begun examining the body.

Blood and tissue tests have been submitted for further examination, and trainer Jones said those tests will prove the filly was not on steroids.

Desormeaux forgotten

While most of the hoopla on Kentucky Derby Day involved Big Brown and Eight Belles, winning jockey Kent Desormeaux was pretty much overlooked.

That's fine with the veteran rider, who started his career in Maryland.

Desormeaux, who won previous Run for the Roses aboard Real Quiet (1998) and Fusaichi Pegasus (2000), joined fellow jockeys Isaac Murphy, Earl Sande, Angel Cordero Jr. and Gary Stevens as riders who have won three Kentucky Derbies.

Bill Hartack and Eddie Arcaro each won five and Bill Shoemaker won four.

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