There's just one explanation for double Triple Crown horse tragedies: bad luck

Bill Tanton

June 15, 1993|By Bill Tanton

You don't have to be a horseman all your life, as 70-year-old former U.S. Senator Daniel B. Brewster has been, to know the answer.

Neither do you have to be as well-traveled as ABC-TV's Jim McKay -- and McKay, in addition to broadcasting Triple Crown races for many years, owns a small Maryland stable of thoroughbreds.

And you don't have to be a seasoned track official like Lenny Hale, the Maryland Jockey Club's president for racing, to be able to explain the tragic injuries that resulted in the humane destroying of Union City and Prairie Bayou in this year's Preakness and Belmont Stakes, respectively.

"It has to be just plain lousy luck," says Danny Brewster. "This was the first time it's happened in a Triple Crown race in 34 years."

In the 1959 Belmont Stakes, Black Hill, ridden by Eddie Arcaro, broke down and had to be destroyed.

"This year," says McKay, "was the first time this has happened in the Preakness since 1909! Then it happens in two Triple Crown races in a row. It has to be just terrible luck."

The chart from the 34th running of the Preakness in '09 shows that Statesman stumbled at the sixteenth pole, lost his rider, E. Dugan, and "pulled up on three legs."

This spring, 84 years after Statesman, we all learned, if we didn't already know, what it means when a horse pulls up on three legs. He's history.

"It's not all that unusual for a race horse to be destroyed," Brewster says, "but it's most unusual with the kind of thoroughbred that runs in Triple Crown races. These horses are the best -- the best-bred, the best cared for.

"Up at Charles Town, for example, they have sore-legged old horses that are standing in ice all the time as their owners try to get one more race out of them.

"A 1,000-pound horse is worth $700 to what I call The Killer for use as dog food. There are horses at little tracks that are one step ahead of The Killer. When one of them is destroyed, it's not considered such a big deal."

Just two days ago, in a steeplechase race at Laurel, Little Red Badge fell and, eventually, was taken away in a van and destroyed. The story made page 8 yesterday. Deemed more newsworthy was the injury to his rider, 19-year-old Charles Fenwick III, who had to be hospitalized and his cut tongue stitched.

Lenny Hale, who was the speaker at the monthly sports luncheon at J. Patrick's the other day, worked for 17 years in New York, where he put together racing cards at Belmont Park, Aqueduct and Saratoga.

Hale truly is a lover of the breed. He is a trustee of the National Museum of Racing at Saratoga. Hale was there when Prairie Bayou perished.

"The best answer anyone has been able to come up with is bad luck," said Hale. "I hate to say anything is the best when we're talking about losing two fine thoroughbreds, but we in the industry have analyzed this thing, we've studied tapes, and all we can conclude is that the two horses were victims of terrible luck.

"Life is unpredictable and so is horse racing. Nobody expected President Kennedy to be assassinated. Nobody thought the spaceship Apollo would blow up. And nobody thought we'd have tragedies in back-to-back Triple Crown races."

While the Prairie Bayou disaster came from out of the blue, there was speculation after Union City's death that trainer D. Wayne Lukas had been too aggressive in running him in the Preakness. The horse didn't work between his poor race in the Derby and his final effort two weeks later at Pimlico.

"Wayne took a bad rap on that," said Hale. "His horse was examined and declared fit.

"I'm not sure what measures we can take to prevent what we just experienced. Ninety-seven percent of the time injuries such as these are caused by a horse being bumped. Neither of these was bumped.

"If horses were X-rayed before a race we might discover a slight crack or stress fracture that was otherwise undetected. The horsemen couldn't afford the cost of that.

"Maybe we should do a pre-race X-ray on horses in televised showcase races like the Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup races. Maybe the tracks should do that."

The twin disasters hit racing at a time when the industry is hurting.

There's a shortage of horses and gamblers won't bet on four-horse fields because they can't get any odds. Some long-established tracks have gone out of business. New Jersey's Garden State, once one of the country's premier tracks, will close Dec. 3.

"We need to find a way," says Hale, "to increase the purses and make it feasible to raise the needed horses. Our biggest problem is a lack of owners."

Owners have long been attracted to thoroughbred ownership by the dream of having a Triple Crown horse.

The deaths of Union City and Prairie Bayou surely have put a damper on that, even though they appear to have been caused only by bad luck.

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