Vets try to reduce odds of a breakdown

May 18, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

Dr. George Mundy has no illusions about his constant presence in the barns at Pimlico this week. He is not a savior.

"We're just trying to make sure that we're doing as much as is humanly possible," he said yesterday.

Sometimes, most times, even that won't be enough. Sometimes, most times, a horse offers no warning before it breaks down in a race. Prairie Bayou was a portrait of soundness until he took a bad step and shattered his leg in the Belmont a year ago. Racetrackers will tell you that such matters are up to the racing gods, and you do have to wonder.

But after last year's tragic Triple Crown -- Union City became the first modern-era Preakness fatality -- racing's lieutenants found themselves wondering if they really were taking every precaution they could.

The answer was no.

"It's not that we weren't sensitive before," said John Ed Anthony, the Arkansas timberman who owned Prairie Bayou, "but maybe it was a situation where we thought we were doing all we could, and then these bad things happened, and we saw that there were other things we could do. That's what you're seeing now. People saying, 'Maybe we can try a little harder.' "

Thus, there was the sight of Dr. Mundy, chief veterinarian for the Kentucky Racing Commission, hovering around the Stakes Barn yesterday, accompanied by Dr. David Zipf, chief veterinarian for the Maryland Racing Commission. They spent the morning ducking into stalls and talking to the Preakness trainers, watching the horses work out, trying to learn as much as possible about each horse's habits and running style.

"We'll watch them all week," Mundy said. "We'll watch how they train, how they come back [from working out]. We'll watch how their feet hit the ground. They're all different, just like humans."

Previously, Triple Crown horses underwent only the routine race-morning exam that every horse at every track must pass. Breeders' Cup officials were the first to realize that something had to change after experiencing a series of breakdowns in their races. They commissioned a panel to study the problem. Among the changes recommended was a more thorough inspection of the horses before the race.

Mundy and a team of vets kept tabs on 89 horses before the Breeders' Cup last fall, then 15 before the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago. Both events were breakdown-free. Pimlico hired him to do the same job here.

"We've been following these horses all year," Mundy said. "We have extensive notes on them. Between Dr. Zipf and myself, we have seen something like 36 of their 96 starts. The idea is to know what is normal for them, so you can notice something abnormal."

In a perfect world, this wouldn't be necessary. In a perfect world, trainers wouldn't think of running horses that were less than perfectly sound. Veterinarians wouldn't let them run.

But in the real world, there are trainers willing to run horses that are risks, less than wholly sound. Maybe they want the purse money. Maybe their owner demands it. Whatever. And there are vets willing to look the other way in order to get the horse into the starting gate, which, of course, is why the owners and trainers are paying the vet in the first place.

Not a pretty story, but true.

"Ninety-nine percent of the people in this business do right by their horses," said one Preakness trainer. "But, like in any profession, there's always that 1 percent."

Of course, sound horses still are the ones that break down as often as not, and the real frustration is no one knows why and research is shockingly primitive. "Horses aren't part of the food chain, so there are no federal funds to study them," Anthony said. "I'm astounded at how little is known."

No matter who or what is to blame, however, the point is that the sport is in crisis. It simply can't allow a continuation of the steady run of death that has marked its high-profile events. Too many people are offended. Animal rights groups are beginning to get interested.

"Whenever a horse breaks down on national television, we all ask questions," Mundy said during a rare stop yesterday morning. "In my little world of what we can do, this is something we can do."

It might not stop a horse from breaking down Saturday. But it might, too. And why not do as much as possible?

"It's just no longer acceptable to say, 'Well, these things happen, it's just part of racing,' " Anthony said. "The public doesn't buy that anymore. The public knows everything today. How many feet the home run was. How many inches the putt broke. Everything is broken into increments, studied, publicized. The public knows it all. And, so, it wants to know why horses break their legs. And we have to do everything we can to find out why, and to see that it happens as rarely as possible."

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