Triple Crown chase can prove hazardous Skeletal trait, hard push by trainers make horses more susceptible to injury

Belmont notebook

June 04, 1998|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK, N.Y. -- In a column Sunday in the New York Times, trainer John Veitch wrote: "If you fight only pugs, you are only the best pug."

Veitch, of course, is not even the best pug. He trained Alydar, who finished second in the three Triple Crown races of 1978 to Affirmed. In the 20 years since, no one has swept the Triple Crown.

If Real Quiet wins the Belmont Saturday and becomes the 12th Triple Crown winner, Veitch wrote, "Should there be an asterisk next to his name, and at the bottom of the page this notation: Yes, but whom did he beat?"

To be sure, the list of absentees is long, including such highly regarded Triple Crown prospects as Lil's Lad, Event of the Year, Coronado's Quest, Halory Hunter, Johnbill, St. Michael, Old Topper, Comic Strip and Sweetsouthernsaint.

Injuries large and small sidelined them -- and in the case of St. Michael, who broke his leg, proved fatal.

This happens every spring, doesn't it? Promising 3-year-old horses -- young adults in human terms -- fall to injury far more frequently than at any other time of the year.

Or does it? Are we merely paying closer attention because of the high-profile nature of the Triple Crown preps and races.

Dr. Larry Bramlage, a leading equine orthopedic surgeon from Lexington, Ky., said this is not our imagination. Horses on the Triple Crown trail possess a peculiar trait that leaves them more susceptible to injury, he said.

Horses' hearts, lungs and muscles mature more quickly than their bones and joints, he said. Their cardiovascular system has matured by early in their 3-year-old season, but their skeletal system has not. It doesn't mature until later in the year.

"So during this period," Bramlage said, "horses have the capacity for great speed and stamina, but their bones and joints have not reached their adult stage. That makes for more injuries than at any other time in their careers."

Also, he said, horses train harder today than they did 30 or 40 years ago.

One reason for that is the every-day transportation of horses by airplane. A big race lures top horses from all over the country, whereas years ago, Bramlage said, even stakes-quality horses often competed only against horses in their home areas.

"Because they have to run harder, they have to train harder," Bramlage said.

And because there are so many races these days with large purses, he said, trainers and owners often push their horses when they should back off.

Trainers acknowledge this.

After Halory Hunter broke an ankle training for the Preakness, trainer Nick Zito, nearly in tears, accepted blame. It had rained for two weeks, and the Pimlico track was slop. But Halory Hunter needed to be fit for the race.

If it had been a lesser race, not the second jewel of the Triple Crown worth $1 million, Zito said he might have postponed the workout. But it was either work the horse, he said, or miss the race.

The horse broke down and, although he's recovering well, he could not challenge Real Quiet in the Preakness. Nor will Halory Hunter challenge Real Quiet on Saturday in the Belmont, another million-dollar race for which trainers are preparing, and perhaps, pushing their horses.

'Slam' still possibility

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas has not decided whether to enter Grand Slam, who has raced three times since suffering a severed tendon in his left hind leg Nov. 8 in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

In his last start, May 24 here at Belmont Park, Grand Slam won the Grade II Peter Pan Stakes. That was his fourth victory in four tries at Belmont. He won two Grade I races here last year, the Futurity and Champagne Stakes.

Et cetera

Post positions for the Belmont will be drawn late this morning. Unlike the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, where BTC representatives of the horses for the first time could select their starting positions, this will be an old-fashioned random draw. Fitted with glue-on front shoes protecting an irritation in his right-front hoof, Hanuman Highway breezed four furlongs in 45 3/5 seconds. Trainer Kathy Walsh was delighted. "Everything's fine," Walsh said. "We're very happy with the shoes." Betting favorites in the Belmont have won 46 percent of the time. Odds-on favorites (less than even money), which Real Quiet will likely be, have won only 40 percent.

Pub Date: 6/04/98

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