12/30/2008 1:00AM

In 2008, more bad news than good

Barbara D. Livingston
Big Brown's bid for the Triple Crown got off to a roaring start with his wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

The winds of change blew through the world of racing like a Category 5 hurricane in 2008, buffeting the sport from the racetrack to the breeding shed to the halls of Congress.

Whereas 2007 was noted for some of the sport's most compelling competition, including a 3-year-old crop that ranked as one of the best, racing in 2008 mirrored the tumbling stock market, sending shivers through the industry and leading to an overdue examination of business practices and medication rules.

There were great highlights - Curlin's conquest of Dubai, Zenyatta's unbeaten season - but all too often the news was controversial and sometimes grim.

No horse was more intertwined with the highs and lows than Big Brown. He came into the Kentucky Derby with just three starts, yet his talent more than made up for his lack of experience, and he ran away to an easy victory.

But the second-place finisher in the Derby, the filly Eight Belles, fractured both her front ankles while galloping out after the race and was euthanized after collapsing on the clubhouse turn. Hemingway could not have imagined such a juxtaposition of triumph and tragedy.

Her death in the country's greatest race sparked heated debate over the use of medication, even though Eight Belles was subsequently found to have raced without drugs such as anabolic steroids. Despite the evidence, animal rights groups such as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals seized on the opportunity to question the use of drugs in racing. The points made were often shrill and inaccurate, but the ball was rolling.

And it picked up steam after Big Brown won the Preakness Stakes when trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. admitted that Big Brown regularly received anabolic steroids as part of his training regimen. Unlike most professional sports for human athletes, where anabolic steroids are prohibited, racing had no such regulations in many jurisdictions. Although other horses likely received similar treatments, Dutrow was the only trainer to admit it, and the simplistic insinuation was that Big Brown won the Derby and Preakness because he was on steroids.

After Big Brown subsequently belly flopped in the Belmont Stakes, when attempting to become the first Triple Crown winner in 30 years, suspicions grew because he had been taken off steroids. It didn't matter that Big Brown had a bad foot that disrupted his preparation, or that he was the only horse to have competed in all three Triple Crown races, or that he was racing at a distance likely beyond his range and had to run in oppressively hot conditions. This time, the simplistic insinuation was that Big Brown lost because he was no longer on steroids.

Enter Congress.

Racing's leaders were called before a Congressional subcommittee to answer for the sport's medication policies. There is a great divide on the topic. While many people in the sport believe racehorses need raceday medication to perform, others - especially outsiders - find the practice unfathomable and even reprehensible.

The federal hearings served as a swift kick in the pants. By year's end, almost every racing jurisdiction had banned horses from racing on anabolic steroids, including California, whose new rule enabled the 2008 Breeders' Cup to be run without the cloud of steroids hanging above it.

The 2008 Cup also became the first Breeders' Cup to have its main-track races run on a synthetic surface - the Pro-Ride main track at Santa Anita. The races were largely considered a success if for no other reason than a national television audience did not have to see a horse euthanized (as in the Derby or the previous year's Breeders' Cup) or a heavy favorite eased (as in the Belmont).

The movement toward synthetic surfaces, however, was put on hold in large part because of the problems that Santa Anita had experienced earlier in the year with its previous surface, Cushion Track. The Cushion Track surface failed to drain properly, which created havoc in the rainy winter season. Eleven days of racing were scrapped - three were subsequently made up - and millions of dollars were washed away before Pro-Ride came to the rescue.

The expense of changing the surface was hardly needed by Santa Anita's parent company, Magna Entertainment Corp., which undertook a reverse stock split of 1 to 20 to keep from being delisted from the exchanges. Magna was far from alone in having copious amounts of red ink on its balance sheets.

The nosediving economy impacted racing across the board. Betting handle - down. Auction prices - down. Stud fees - down. Another sign of the times was the end of racing at Bay Meadows near San Francisco, which fell to the wrecker's ball after operating since 1934 to make way for commercial development.

Some signs pointed upward.

Curlin became the richest horse based in North America by earning more than $10 million in his career. His trainer, Steve Asmussen, set a single-season record for victories with more than 600, smashing the mark he had set four years earlier. International Equine Acquisition Holdings Stables, which was the majority owner of Big Brown, won 11 Grade 1 races, either alone or in partnerships. Russell Baze, the sport's winningest rider, marched past the 10,000-win mark and kept on rolling. Garrett Gomez won more money and more graded stakes than any other rider, and as of Monday was withing hailing distance of Jerry Bailey's single-season earnings record. Jockey Edgar Prado got his 6,000th win, and a spot in the Hall of Fame alongside 2008 inductees trainer Carl Nafzger, jockey Milo Valenzuela, and the horses Ancient Title, Inside Information, and Manila.

The Breeders' Cup had its biggest event yet, with 14 races worth $25.5 million over two days. And after declaring bankruptcy, and nearly being forced to shut down, the New York Racing Association righted itself and had its franchise extended, ending protracted, rancorous negotiations.

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