Barbaro's injury may be too much for racing to bear

May 23, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

The question being asked about thoroughbred racing in America right now sounds familiar. But it's a little different. Thus, so is the answer.

It's sort of like the question of whether baseball would recover from the labor stoppage in 1994-1995, or if the NBA would suffer after the brawl in the stands in Auburn Hills, Mich., in 2004, or if the NFL could withstand a future Super Bowl Most Valuable Player being tried for murder.

But those sports aren't going anywhere. Racing was in deep trouble long before the opening moments of the Preakness on Saturday. Since then, a cruel reality has set in that far transcends mere "trouble," a reality the guardians of the sport don't have the strength or motivation to dispute.

Even if Barbaro doesn't die from his injuries, racing might.

Every sport at some point wrestles with a perception problem; being strong enough to withstand it often determines how much it becomes part of the fabric. The negative perceptions that arose from this incident are showing signs of being too much for racing to overcome.

From all directions come factors that create an image of a sport in which the needless, senseless death of an animal that didn't choose this fate, is a distinct possibility every time the gates open.

If millions of people never consciously thought about that before, they're thinking hard about it now.

But, one could say, is it too early to say the last rites over a sport with such a long, rich history? Auto racing has survived horrifying incidents borne of the nature of the game. So has boxing, countless times. Horse racing should be able to as well. Right?

Not from the sound of those most closely tied to it. Of all people, they would keep their chins up and their eyes on the future. Few, if any, have been able to ignore what is unfolding in front of them, in the wake of the sport's defining moment for this generation.

No less a figure than Nick Zito, as recognizable a face as there is in the business, has compared Barbaro's still-possibly-fatal injury to Hurricane Katrina. In that vein, racing might have to describe its lifespan as pre-Barbaro and post-Barbaro. The name is destined to be synonymous with disaster.

The morning after the race, as he prepared to leave Pimlico, Zito painted a grim picture. "I guess I'm a 100-percent fan of racing. I love the game, and but for racing, I don't know where I'd be," he said, as reported on the Preakness' official Web site. "It's a sad day for racing. Once again, it casts a shadow on the game. That's the last thing racing needs.

"The whole story [of the race], unfortunately, was what happened, and it's part of our business."

It's not Zito's fault, but it's hardly the kind of public relations racing needs. Nor does it help that in almost every paper in the country this week, somewhere close to the list of Preakness winners, was a list of horses that have had fatal injuries in major races. Ruffian. Go For Wand. Charismatic. Prairie Bayou.

Not much about Secretariat or Smarty Jones anymore. That's the story of the sport right now, tragedy and heartbreak.

The problems in racing, the reasons the industry is struggling, have all been well-documented. But until Saturday, that's all they were, impediments that kept a little sport from getting big.

Now, the sport has to worry about going away completely. Good luck to ABC and the Disney dynasty, with all its synergistic power, getting people to watch the Belmont next month. The casual fan will be voting on the sport with its clickers. Any other year, even if Barbaro had been denied the Triple Crown under normal conditions, the Belmont might get a quick peek. The peekers of past years are the conscious avoiders of today.

The hardcore fans, meanwhile, are enraged. Just as the mistrust and the negative perception comes from all corners, so does the anger.

Some is directed at whoever decided to let Barbaro get back in the gate so quickly after breaking through early. "What idiots!" one emailer to The Sun wrote yesterday. "There is a lot of cover-up going on here and it is sad." There's a term that bodes poorly for the sport, "cover-up."

Others are sure that the time between Triple Crown races is too short for the horses to recover, and that there aren't enough good reasons to keep the time the same except to give the sport and its television partners a compact window to conduct its showcase event.

The breeding and training of horses today has come under fire; some say the allure of fast money comes at the cost of the animal's durability, or its life. Others are appalled at the cost of repairing Barbaro, strictly because of the investment made in him.

In fact, the more the discussion turns to money, the more one senses that an unbridgeable gap is growing between the sport's hierarchy and its potential supporters.

So in the face of all of this, how does horse racing survive? How good is its damage control at what has to be its lowest moment ever?

Those are the questions. But those who have to answer them might soon find out that some damage just can't be controlled.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

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