Racing Trying To Rein In Injuries

In Wake Of Prominent Accidents, It's Safety First

April 29, 2009|By Bill Ordine | Bill Ordine,bill.ordine@baltsun.com

There was a time not so long ago when immediately after a horse race, the natural question was, "Who won?"

Now, after high-profile race tragedies that struck down two Triple Crown horses in three years, the more likely question is, "Is everyone all right?"

"Horse racing's Dale Earnhardt moment" is how Mike Ziegler, an executive involved in racing safety, described the death of filly Eight Belles after last year's Kentucky Derby. He compared it to the fatal crash suffered by the NASCAR legend during the 2001 Daytona 500. In 2006, Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro suffered what would turn out to be a fatal injury at the start of the Preakness.

So, with the 135th Kentucky Derby on Saturday, it's hardly a surprise that safety is a dominant issue hanging over the sport.

"The industry as a whole is certainly more aware and more cognizant of trying to be safer," said Todd Pletcher, an Eclipse Award-winning trainer who has a closely watched contender, Dunkirk, entered in the Derby.

"Unfortunately, there's a certain inherent risk in any athletic endeavor where injury is possible," Pletcher said.

To reduce that risk, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association formed its Safety and Integrity Alliance, which Ziegler steers as executive director, and implemented a racetrack accreditation process designed to help ensure racing safety.

"We want people to participate in racing at accredited tracks because those tracks have made a commitment to the safety of horses, the jockeys and the exercise riders," Ziegler said. "And then we want customers to vote with their dollars" by attending those tracks.

Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course, where Derby winner Barbaro suffered his breakdown, is being inspected Wednesday and Thursday by the alliance's team of inspectors. Churchill Downs, site of the Kentucky Derby, was the first track that earned accreditation, in early April, followed by Keeneland. Belmont Park, site of the third leg of the Triple Crown, is also scheduled for an inspection soon. Delaware Park was inspected this week.

While being accredited is not a requirement for holding the Triple Crown races, clearly the thoroughbred industry is eager to do all it can to help win back the confidence of a public that watched the tragedies of Barbaro and Eight Belles on national TV.

"Anything that we can do to show the public that we're taking every precaution that we can to ensure the safety of everyone, every participant out there, is very good for everyone involved in the game," Pletcher said.

The accreditation process requires tracks, such as Pimlico, to complete a lengthy application that touches on five areas of emphasis: racing environment, reporting injuries, medication and testing, care of retired horses, and jockey welfare. Tracks pay a $15,000 fee to begin the process.

Once the application is completed, a three-person team of inspectors, including Ziegler, visits the track and interviews personnel from track management to veterinarians, trainers and jockeys. Inspections are made of starting gates, track rails and barn areas. Not included are spectator areas, such as the grandstand or the clubhouse.

Serving as an independent monitor for the NTRA's safety effort is former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson. Ziegler said Thompson's experience was particularly significant because the accreditation process for tracks is similar to the one hospitals go through.

"As a patient, I don't want to go to a hospital that's not accredited, and as a participant in horse racing, I want to go to a track that's accredited," Ziegler said.

After a racetrack is inspected, an evaluation is made quickly, Ziegler said, and a track might get full accreditation or, if there are deficiencies that need to be remedied, provisional accreditation.

While holding the Preakness is not contingent on getting accreditation, Maryland Jockey Club president Tom Chuckas said getting the safety alliance's stamp of approval is still a priority.

"I think we're fairly close; there's a few issues we have to tighten up," Chuckas said. "Part of the accreditation process is not just the racetrack but it's the [state racing] commission, which does testing and so on, which the track doesn't have control over."

"But we're trying," Chuckas added. "We're making every effort to accomplish this for the Preakness."

135th kentucky derby

When: Saturday, 6:04 p.m. post

Where: Churchill Downs,

Louisville, Ky.

TV: Chs. 11, 4

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