Injuries to top horses have racing people scratching for answers

November 01, 1990|By Dale Austin

The injuries began in February, when top Kentucky Derby candidate Grand Canyon developed a knee problem that led to his retirement.

Cryptoclearance and Derby favorite Red Ransom were hurt soon after, and Champagneforashley two days before the Preakness. Next came Hawkster and Eastern Echo, who was Red Ransom's stablemate. Sunday Silence and Easy Goer never made it to the $1 million Arlington Challenge Cup, which had been

billed as the race of the year, because of injuries.

Classic Fame, Northern Wolf and Gorgeous also had careers that were cut short by injuries.

L And then came the Breeders' Cup at Belmont Park on Saturday.

In the first race, Mr. Nickerson died of an apparent heart attack. Shaker Knit fell over him, and was humanely destroyed that night.

Two races later, heavily favored Go for Wand was leading Bayakoa by no more than a neck during the stretch of the Breeders' Cup Distaff

when her right foreleg snapped and she fell. The filly tried to stand -- to the horror of the 55,000 at the track and millions watching on national television.

It is unclear why so many famous racehorses have been hurt recently, but a survey of prominent racing people this week produced these theories:

* Longer seasons and more races than before. Instead of the good horses being taken out of training for the winter and brought back to the races leisurely each spring, they con

tinue to race until something goes wrong.

* Thoroughbreds are bred for speed and competition. The good races provide the toughest tests. When the best race the best, as it was Saturday, they race their hardest until something gives. Go for Wand raced until she fell. That's the nature of the sport.

* With more racing coverage than ever, more attention is given to the careers of the top horses. More horses are being bred. There are more than 50,000 thoroughbreds foaled each year. Thirty years ago, there were about 5,000.

* Hard tracks. Some people believe that some track superintendents are inclined to speed up their tracks when important races are coming up. When the speeded-up condition exists -- the tracks are harder because there is less cushion.

-- the fragile legs of racehorses can give way.

Seth Hancock, who runs Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky., agreed with several of the theories.

"I believe there's more injuries this year," he said. "There's so many more horses at so many more tracks. There used to be 5,000 horses born each year, and there was very little winter racing. It used to be that horses rested in South Carolina. They don't rest now.

"And there's the competition. Sunday Silence and Easy Goer raced four times last year. Their trainers knew they had to be at their best to race, and they were honed to the finest edge. Something has to give sometimes."

Alex Harthill, a nationally known veterinarian, said: "They run all year. Around the racetrack, people say there's two kinds of racehorses. One has problems, and the other will have problems."

Said trainer Shug McGaughey: "This [all the attention] is just because they are name horses. No one pays any attention to a horse trained by a friend of mine that got hurt in an earlier race that day and had to be operated on to be saved.

"These are a matter of good horses taking bad steps and getting hurt."

Or does the horse of McGaughey's friend merely add to the puzzle?

Dr. Robert Vallance, a veterinarian who practices on the Maryland circuit, says the extreme speed and the horses' natural desire to run fast cause the problems.

"I'll never forget a trip I took to the Bahamas in the 1970s," he said. "I was in Nassau at the Hobby Horse track. The horses were native-bred and weren't thoroughbreds. But they didn't have any injuries. They were mostly all sound.

"But the point is, they weren't fast either. They went six furlongs in 1:20."

Fast thoroughbreds at good tracks in the United States race six furlongs in about 1 minute, 10 seconds.

Trainer Hank Allen said he didn't think the rash of injuries at Belmont was coincidental.

"Northern Wolf had never taken a bad step in his life until the day [at Belmont] he worked so fast," Allen said. "The track was extremely fast. There have been several other horses, not in the Breeders' Cup races, that were injured up there. It seems to me that tracks in many places get faster the closer the time comes for a big race. That's not to say the tracks [managements] aren't trying to do their best.

I just know I've had awfully bad luck."

Joe King, superintendent of the tracks run by the New York Racing Association, of which Belmont Park is one, said: "There's no reason [for speeding up tracks]. Our goal is uniformity and consistency. Nothing was changed for Breeders' Cup week."

King did point out that faster times usually are produced by the better horses, "and they run on weekends."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.