Sad truth

O, BY THE WAY

Pall of tragedy, worry looms over Preakness

On horse racing fatalities

May 06, 2008|By BILL ORDINE

Horse industry statistics tell us that the chances of a fatality for a racehorse breaking from a starting gate are less than 1 in 500.

That might be true, but try telling that to fans who have been watching big horse races lately.

Barbaro in the 2006 Preakness. George Washington in the Breeders' Cup Classic last year. And now Eight Belles in Saturday's Kentucky Derby.

Actually, those who attended the past two Preakness Days at Pimlico saw two horses suffer catastrophic injuries. Barbaro, of course, and last May, Mending Fences in the Dixie Stakes. Barbaro battled his injury for eight months before being euthanized because of complications from laminitis. Mending Fences, who had the lead went he went down, never left the track.

As the next two weeks play out leading up to the 133rd Preakness, the conversation will be less about Big Brown's competition -- he has nearly none -- but rather of horse racing safety.

Regardless of what the statistics say, the racing public -- and let's admit it, it is largely an audience whose interest is piqued just a handful of times a year -- has to be holding its breath every time the starting bell goes off and the gates fly open.

In the discussion of horse fatalities, we might forget that the 2005 Preakness also could have been a horribly tragic event except for the incredible balance and athleticism of winner Afleet Alex, who recovered from a stumble that could have been resulted in a multihorse pile-up.

Making the recent high-profile racing fatalities all the more frustrating is the differing circumstances. A grotesque misstep by Barbaro doomed the colt. In the case of George Washington, he was a turf champion asked to come out of a brief retirement to race on dirt, and a wet track at that. And then there was the filly, Eight Belles, going down freakishly a quarter-mile after finishing second behind Big Brown.

Already the Preakness field is sure to be absent almost all the starters from the Kentucky Derby. They all got a good look (mostly from behind) at Big Brown overcoming the handicap of the No. 20 starting position and winning by nearly five lengths while pulling away. And the only horse that could stay within challenging distance was Eight Belles.

So rather than hearing about matchups of quick starters against fast finishers, brace yourself for lots of talk about synthetic surfaces versus dirt, and the short intervals between the Derby and the Preakness and the Preakness and the Belmont, and the insane physiology of horse breeding that produces 1,000 pounds of muscle atop elegantly delicate legs.

As a result, for many race fans piled into the grandstand and infield at Pimlico, apprehensions over the Triple Crown fate of Big Brown might have less to do with the challengers to his left and right as about the uncertainties that await straight ahead.

bill.ordine@baltsun.com

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