Breeders' goes extra Sprint to make races safe, sound

November 05, 1993|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Staff Writer

ARCADIA, CALIF — ARCADIA, Calif. -- High stakes. High tragedies. High egos.

In a sound bite, that's the Breeders' Cup experience, the seven-race series with purses totaling $10 million offered for the 10th time tomorrow at Santa Anita Park.

Looking for action, violence and sensationalism?

Try the Breeders' Cup Sprint, which in 10 runnings has contributed to the deaths of four horses, most spectacularly Mr. Brooks last year and in earlier runnings Mr. Nickerson and Shaker Knit, who succumbed in 1990. The previous year, one horse, Sam Who, swerved at the start and interfered with seven horses, causing early retirement for one runner, Sewickley, now at stud in Harford County, and eventual death for another, On The Line.

"It's had more than its share of injuries," said trainer Darrell

Vienna, who runs Gilded Time, last year's juvenile champ, in tomorrow's Sprint. "But a lot of that is due to sheer physics. There are 14 horses in a shorter race and not much room for them to spread out. They are all bunched up."

After the Mr. Brooks incident last year, when the horse shattered his leg on the turn, fell and pinned legendary English jockey Lester Piggott on the ground, the Breeders' Cup set up an advisory panel to decide whether the race should be discontinued.

The result? The Sprint goes on, but the Breeders' Cup committee has instituted the most stringent veterinary inspection of the horses in the history of the sport and adopted the most elaborate post-race drug analysis program.

The principal improvement is the upgraded veterinary inspection overseen by a medical SWAT team, headed by George Mundy, chief veterinarian for the Kentucky Racing Commission.

All horses in every Breeders' Cup race are inspected each day either by a team of veterinarians who watch them train or by another team that physically inspects them in the barn.

After Sprint second choice, Birdonthe wire, shipped in from Belmont Park Wednesday night, he was inspected yesterday morning by three veterinarians. "They were polite and asked to look at the horse," said trainer Phil Serpe. "They inspected him for soundness, flexed his joints and watched him jog. It's similar to what's done in other states, although more comprehensive. I understand why it's being done, because we don't want these disasters casting a shadow over the whole sport.

"But I do believe in my heart that if these same three guys had inspected the previous [Breeders' Cup] horses that broke down, they would have allowed them to run. No one is going to run a horse in these races if they are hanging by a thread. These are all top horses and top horsemen. My belief is that disasters follow patterns, in air crashes, or fires like they are experiencing in California right now or horse racing accidents."

Each day both the track and barn veterinarian teams feed their data into a computer bank.

"Then on Breeders' Cup Day, the veterinarian stationed at the starting gate will have a printout giving concise data on each horse," Mundy said. "Instead of having to make a decision in two minutes whether or not the horse is traveling sound, he'll have a whole battery of information to refer to if there is a question."

On race day, Mundy will coordinate the team from Clocker's Corner at the top of the stretch. There will be two horse ambulances on call, staffed not just by veterinarians, but also by veterinary surgeons from the University of California Veterinary School at Davis.

Noted veterinarian Larry Bramlage from Kentucky will serve as the equine medical expert for NBC television coverage.

There also will be a stable area team that will feed information through Mundy to the media to explain if a horse bled or suffered any kind of injury that might have affected his performance.

Mundy also hopes that this system will be adopted next year by the Triple Crown, which experienced two catastrophic breakdowns this year. He hopes that the system eventually will evolve into the formation of a national data bank, so that when horses ship from track to track to run, veterinarians will be able to refer to the histories of each animal.

Vienna said it is an idea long overdue. "First, the panel must be made up of experts," he said, "then they must be empowered to follow through on their observations, even if that means scratching a favorite at the starting gate."

Vienna said after watching Mr. Brooks train last year at Gulfstream Park, the horse was so sore, "I was astounded that he was allowed to run."

Mundy said he is "real happy with the horses I've seen this week. The ones on paper that might be suspect, such as horses that have been away a long time or had a long time between races, seem to present no concern."

Vienna, too, said he has watched many of the Breeders' Cup horses train "and I haven't seen a suspect horse that has been wearing a Breeders' Cup saddlecloth, and if I did, I wouldn't hesitate to say so."

Vienna's Sprint entry, Gilded Time, hasn't run in a year. "He has had a series of soundness problems that have kept him from running, but in the last eight weeks, he has been 100 percent sound. But if by post time any symptom shows up that indicates a problem, he will not run."

One of his rivals, Music Merci, is a 7-year-old horse whose medical history involves two broken sesamoids. "But I know his trainer, Bill Spawr," Vienna said. "And he absolutely wouldn't run this horse if it wasn't sound."

FACTS AND FIGURES

What: 10th running of Breeders' Cup races

Where: Santa Anita Park, Arcadia, Calif.

When: Tomorrow

TV: NBC (channels 2, 4), 1:30 p.m.

Races: Sprint ( 3/4 mile), Juvenile Fillies (1 1/16 miles), Distaff (1 1/8 miles), Mile, Juvenile (1 1/16 miles), Turf (1 1/2 miles), Classic (1 1/4 miles)

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