May 22, 2006 -- On the morning after the disaster at Pimlico, thoroughbred racing did what thoroughbred racing does best.
"It's human nature after something like this to try to point the finger somewhere, at someone, and say, 'That's the cause. That's the reason,'" said Joe DeFrancis, chief executive officer of the Maryland Jockey Club. "As sad as it is, accidents like this are part of the game."
The accident he was referring to, of course, was heavy favorite Barbaro's horrific breakdown shortly after the start of the 131st Preakness Stakes on Saturday. The colt underwent seven hours of surgery on his broken right hind leg Sunday and was standing in an intensive care unit. Dean Richardson, who performed the surgery, said Barbaro had a "50-50" chance of survival because of the risk of infection.
DeFrancis is right about one thing: The stress huge and powerful racehorses place on their thin lower legs is, in and of itself, a threat to their safety. Here's the problem with shrugging off tragedy and trotting out the "It's part of the game" line: It doesn't do anything to help fix the problem.
If there is one thing horse racing has proved completely inept at, it's fixing its own problems. This is the ultimate can't-do sport: bereft of a national governing body and generally lacking in leadership, cohesiveness, vision, adaptability, or a sound plan for connecting to the masses.
While racing execs are shrugging off Barbaro's breakdown, horrified casual fans are tuning out. Those who follow the sport three Saturdays a year are quite likely to follow it zero Saturdays from now on after watching Barbaro's grisly injury. If it's simply part of the game, hey, the viewing public can simply find another game to watch -- one in which potential death and dismemberment are not common side effects.
"I'm afraid you do [lose fans after an accident like Barbaro's]," DeFrancis said. "It's something I've shaken my head at and search[ed] for a solution to for 20 years. I wish there was a magic pill to give to all those people who felt so bad and make them feel better, but there isn't."
DeFrancis drew an analogy to auto racing, saying that the potential for tragedy was there as well. Here's where that analogy falls short: When Dale Earnhardt was killed at Daytona in 2001, NASCAR didn't just look the other way. It reacted, changed its safety regulations, and became a safer sport. Lethal crashes have been down since then.
That's the difference between a smart, assertive sport and an inert sport. Doing nothing only guarantees that the same injuries will keep happening.
The biggest problem horse racing has is a chronic inability to keep its star performers around long enough for the public to latch on to them. The biggest reason is leg injuries. They happen far too often.
Before Barbaro became the star of his generation, the hot name was Stevie Wonderboy, winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile as a 2-year-old and the Derby favorite entering the new year. He was injured while training in February, terminating his Triple Crown run.
That happens every single year, without fail. At least one -- and usually several -- of the top 3-year-olds fall by the wayside on the trail to the Derby because of injury.
For a diminished sport that needs every fan it can get, shrugging at all the broken bones and bowed tendons is not an ideal response.
There is something racing can do to address the problem: It can seriously and aggressively study widespread installation of Polytrack, the synthetic racing surface that gained popularity in Europe, is establishing a beachhead in North America -- and has a reputation for being safer than dirt. Polytrack is formed from polypropylene fibers, recycled rubber, and silica sand covered in a wax coating.
Polytrack is in place at Turfway Park in Florence, Ky., and on the training track at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Ky. This summer it will be installed as the primary racing surface at Keeneland and at Woodbine in Toronto. In February the California Horse Racing Board voted unanimously to mandate that all the state's thoroughbred tracks install Polytrack by the end of 2007. According to Blood-horse, an industry magazine, there have been more than 240 fatalities of California horses at tracks between 2003 and 2005.
The data are far from complete on Polytrack, but early indications are that breakdowns are dramatically reduced on that surface. According to Turfway, there were three catastrophic breakdowns during the first meet on Polytrack. The year before Polytrack was installed there were 24.
"When the Keeneland boys came and talked to me about that [installing Polytrack], I was a little concerned," said Nick Zito, one of the nation's leading trainers and a winner of multiple Triple Crown races. "I was a little reluctant. … But when they talked to me about safety, they stopped me right in my tracks. That was the end of the discussion.
"This sport needs to catch a break. Look, you don't want to see every track go to Polytrack -- I can't see the Kentucky Derby run on Polytrack, can you? -- but you want to keep the animals safe."
DeFrancis pointed out that Magna Entertainment Corp., which owns several tracks in North America, including Pimlico, had spent "tens of millions of dollars" on its racing surfaces. He said the right things about Polytrack, but didn't sound like a believer.
"We certainly value any technological innovation that can make the sport safer," he said. "I think the jury is still out on whether Polytrack does that."
There are other reservations about Polytrack. Will it provide a uniformly fair and consistent racing surface? Will its slightly bouncy nature lead to a different kind of injury?
The biggest fear in some corners is that it will rewrite the record books and render several landmark times meaningless. Kentuckians, for instance, would have a collective conniption fit if Secretariat's 1-minute, 59 2/5-second Kentucky Derby record were ever broken by some horse racing on a souped-up, rubberized surface.
If anything, the Turfway races have yielded slower times, not faster, than those on dirt. So the hallowed marks could remain -- and if they need to add a new section to the record books for the Polytrack era, is that such a fundamental tragedy?
It certainly would be far less tragic than what happened to Barbaro on Saturday in the Preakness.