A broken racehorse, a feeble industry

July 26, 2006|By GRAHAM KNIGHT

The horse racing industry has an economic problem.

For a number of years now, interest in horse racing has been dropping steadily, and the National Thoroughbred Association has been asking, "How do we draw the crowd back in?" For as long as they've been asking that question, the answer has been the Triple Crown.

This year, all eyes were on Barbaro. But the hope of victory turned to tragedy in the second leg of the Triple Crown when that colt broke from the gate and suffered a career-ending injury early in the race at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course.

The expectation was that Barbaro might be the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to take the Triple Crown. Before the Preakness, the race had all but been conceded to the horse that won the Kentucky Derby by a margin greater than any horse since Assault won the 1946 Derby by eight lengths. Just before the race - in which Barbaro was favored by 1 to 2 - NBC's commentators wondered: Were we "witnessing another super horse on the way to racing history?"

The answer to NBC's question is yes, we all witnessed a super horse on his way to racing history. But as Barbaro continues a fitful recovery from his career-ending and life-threatening injury, his story joins a much sadder and darker part of horse racing lore. That is the list of horses that have broken down before, during or after a major race.

Sports Illustrated reported in its Internet coverage of Barbaro's injury that "Thoroughbreds have broken down in past big races: In the 1993 Preakness, Union City broke down and was euthanized; in the 1993 Belmont Stakes, Preakness winner Prairie Bayou broke down; in the 1999 Belmont Stakes, with Charismatic trying to win the Triple Crown, he was pulled up while finishing third with a fractured ankle; Go For Wand broke down in the stretch of the 1990 Breeders' Cup and was euthanized; and in 1975, the great Ruffian broke down in a match race with Foolish Pleasure. She was operated on, but was later euthanized."

As the fate of Barbaro sinks in, it is fair to ask: Why did this happen? Why has it been 28 years since a horse has won the Triple Crown? Why is the NTA hanging all its hopes on the Triple Crown?

Maybe we'll never know the answer to all these questions, but some things have become clearer. The Triple Crown is important to the NTA because of the national TV coverage; when there is not a Triple Crown contender, the ratings drop. The Thoroughbred Times reported in its Internet coverage that this year's ratings were similar to the 2000 ratings, in which there was no Triple Crown contender.

One of the results of Barbaro's injury was a drop in the TV ratings and a drop in the level of interest from the Preakness to the Belmont Stakes.

Maybe the NTA is trying to draw in a crowd using a race that can't be won. Maybe the series of races is predicated on asking a 3-year-old racehorse to do something that has been bred out of the breed.

Could the thoroughbred be going the way of the German shepherd? Breeders haven't done very well by the German shepherd, which suffers from several inbred ailments. Perhaps similar weakness is being bred into the thoroughbred. Several decades ago, it was common for thoroughbreds to run 40 or more races during a career, but for decades now Grade One horses rarely run nearly half that many times before retirement. Partly, this is because of the attraction of large breeding fees, but that is not the full explanation. Stamina, strength and the risk of injury are other factors.

It may well also be that 3-year-old thoroughbreds are still growing and developing. In order to race, they have to be started at age 2, which is contrary to one accepted notion: that a horse shouldn't start training until 3 and not be expected to race regularly until he or she is 4. By asking 3-year-olds to win three tough races in a five-week period, we are asking for something that hasn't been accomplished in 28 years and has now cost several horses dearly.

The economics are clear. The NTA has a numbers problem. The crowds gather to see and root on a Triple Crown winner but fall off drastically when a Triple Crown contender isn't in the running. For the horse racers, it's a numbers game. The economics pay for the fastest young horse. The horse doesn't have to withstand the racing strains for very long to make big money. The economics that supports older horses is all but gone. But unfortunately, this economic model doesn't do much to attract and hold an audience.

The audience wants a hero, and time to follow his or her career. The horses today don't allow for that affection to develop. Part of what made Seabiscuit so popular was his long-standing career, coupled with the size of the purses he raced for.

The horse racing industry was suffering a similar fate when Seabiscuit appeared in the late 1930s. It was the economics that turned the racing industry around at that time and with great effect, making Seabiscuit one of the most popular sports figures of all time.

We'd all be better served if the economics supported the kind of breeding it takes to raise and race thoroughbreds that could run 40 or more races - not just win the Triple Crown and retire.

Graham Knight, a farrier in Northern Virginia, has a degree in economics from the University of Colorado, Boulder. His e-mail is balancedhoofcare@aol.com.

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