Protocol followed, but was it enough?

Some say Barbaro compromised in false start

May 25, 2006|By KEN MURRAY | KEN MURRAY,SUN REPORTER

When a racehorse breaks through the starting gate prematurely, as Barbaro did in the Preakness Stakes, it's often an indication that bad things will follow.

"I've never had a horse win when it has gone through the gate," said retired jockey Jerry Bailey.

"It's kind of a track superstition," said John Veitch, a former trainer. "If it happened to a horse I was training, my heart would come right out of me. I knew the horse had been compromised."

Still, no one could have expected the Kentucky Derby winner to sustain a devastating injury minutes after he bolted through the Preakness gate on Saturday.

According to track superintendent Jamie Richardson, Barbaro suffered the only catastrophic injury since the spring meet opened April 20.

Why it happened is the question no one - not jockey Edgar Prado, not trainer Michael Matz, not attending track veterinarians or subsequent surgeons - can answer, and maybe never will.

Did the injury have anything to do with leaving the gate early?

Bailey, a Hall of Fame rider and now a commentator for ESPN, doesn't think so. "It's hard for me to hang my hat on the gate," he said.

Veitch, who once trained Alydar and now works as the chief steward for the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority, isn't so certain.

"I do know from personal experience, it does compromise a horse's chances," he said fromLouisville, Ky., yesterday. "Whether it's from broken concentration or whether it's because they hesitate - the horse already has hit his head once and doesn't want to do it again - I don't know.

"In some cases, I have thought afterward that the state veterinarian or the vet at the gate should have scratched the horse."

Maryland track officials have been lauded for responding quickly and effectively to Barbaro's breakdown and saving the horse. There has been criticism, too. One of the prevailing ideas is that the pressure of NBC's television coverage somehow coerced state veterinarian Dr. David Zipf into reloading Barbaro quickly into the gate.

Zipf disputes the charge emphatically.

"I treated it like an ordinary race," he said. "That's what I have to do. I can't be influenced. I did my protocol, with no adherence to any time schedule.

"If I thought there was any problem with the horse, I would have told them to not reload until I get a further look or maybe even have Edgar jog the horse and walk back."

Zipf followed the unwritten protocol accepted at most tracks around the country. It's a combination of common sense and horsemanship, as Veitch described it.

When a horse is fractious in the gate in Kentucky, Veitch said the state vet normally will remove the horse and examine it, "usually at a jog to make sure nothing happened."

If a horse breaks through the gate but is quickly corralled by an outrider, the vet will look at the head and all four limbs to make sure the horse hasn't been dazed.

"It's an eyeball test, unless something is [wrong]," Veitch said. "When a horse hits the gate doors, it has to hit it with significant force to open it. The vet will basically start at the head and make sure there's no blood coming out of the nostrils, no wounds and both eyes are functioning.

"You're trying to ascertain the horse hasn't stunned himself, like a boxer getting hit in the head."

Zipf did the eyeball test and followed the horse as it returned to the gate. He did not jog Barbaro because he did not see anything wrong. Under what circumstances does Zipf ask for a horse to jog?

"If I see him possibly favoring a leg or maybe a real subtle lameness," he said. "Or maybe I just watch their stride. That's why I go watch them behind the gate, warming up around the turn. I try to see as much as I can."

Veitch said he did not see anything suspicious when he watched a tape of the Preakness.

"In my opinion, they handled it as properly as they could, given all the circumstances," he said.

Head starter Bruce Wagner said the Maryland Jockey Club will back horses out if a horse has become hung up in the gate. But there are risks there, too.

"When you back the field out, you're just asking for something [else] to go wrong," he said. "Dr. Zipf came back and looked at [Barbaro] and said, `All right,' and we sent the field."

Said Veitch: "You're making decisions and asking questions as the thing evolves. There are no hard rules one would follow."

In addition to protocol, the track itself was in ideal condition, according to Richardson. He said he graded it Friday night and personally checked the "cushion," a soft mix of mostly sand with clay and silt that softens the shock of a horse's stride, with a putty knife to make sure it was a uniform 3 1/2 inches.

The track is watered between races by a pair of water trucks and then made even by tractors pulling harrows.

Richardson said the truck drivers, which include the track superintendent from Laurel Park, inspect as they go around the oval.

"There are lots of eyes looking at the track every race," Richardson said. "You have all the jockeys, they're warming up out there, and all the outriders. And they're tough - rightfully so. If they see something wrong, they wouldn't hesitate to call the stewards, myself, [Maryland Jockey Club chief operating officer] Lou Raffetto or whoever to get it right."

ken.murray@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Bill Ordine contributed to this article.

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