01/01/2009 12:00AM

A bad break, regardless of the cause


ARCADIA, Calif. - "It's cool. No pulse."

Greg Gilchrist knelt at the stall of Indyanne as she stood at the webbing and reached in to feel both front feet. Indyanne lowered her nose and sniffed at her trainer, then pawed through the straw to the thick rubber stall mat underneath. The cool foot was the right, the real worry, even though Indyanne had shattered the inside sesamoid of her left ankle, now thickly bandaged with support wrap. A cool right foot meant the disproportionate amount of weight it was bearing had not yet resulted in founder, the deadly disease that accompanies the post-trauma stages of many front leg injuries.

"That's why these next two, four, six weeks will be so important," Gilchrist said. "It all depends on if she can keep her weight distributed. I mean, she's way ahead of the game. When I got in the van that day, I thought she'd be dead in an hour. And if there's a horse who can get through this, it's a horse like her. She's very laid back, what you'd call a real good patient. But I've gone to lunch, come back, and they've foundered. In the horse world, it's like cancer."

Gilchrist rose and stroked Indyanne the length of her gray face.

"And you were gonna win the other day, weren't you," Gilchrist said. "They had just hung that 45 for the half, and I thought, 'Uh-oh, shame on you. You let her go in 45, you better look out.' Then it wasn't but an eighth of a mile later . . ."

Indyanne's breakdown while on the lead in the stretch of the La Brea Stakes on Dec. 27 seemed like ancient history by New Year's Day, especially in light of two subsequent fatal racing breakdowns and a cluster of injuries during training hours. It has been all hands on deck with the Santa Anita management team in an attempt to figure out to what extent, if any, the Pro-Ride engineered racing surface has had to do with the bad news. But since the racing surface - any racing surface - is the one obvious element all players have in common, most of those who had an opinion were pointing in one direction.

Gilchrist, a self-described alumnus of the old school, was not one of them. If one of his horses is hurt, or goes otherwise awry, he is more inclined to search his own behavior for flaws before looking for someone or something else to blame.

It was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's mythic detective Sherlock Holmes who noted, "Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth." When Gilchrist said, in the case of Indyanne's breakdown, that it had to be "just one of those things," he was not being flip, or fatalistic. He had already ticked through a long list of what could have gone wrong in her condition or her preparation. In her specific case, Indyanne was even thoroughly vetted barely a month before as part of her seven-figure sale to John Sikura Jr.

Of course, the variables leading to breakdowns are so numerous that only a trainer willing to spend 24 hours a day at the barn and think of nothing else will ever even begin to eliminate them all. (This reporter has never understood how a trainer can have a family and 30 horses.) Even for the most dedicated, selfless, and insightful among horsemen, what remains is the unforgiveable nature of the Thoroughbred and the pressures under which they race.

"Could we do things better? There's no doubt," Gilchrist said. "For one thing, every time a day comes open on the calendar there's five tracks going for it. If you're going to race every single day of the year, people are going to be using more drugs, you're going to try to figure out how to make your racetracks hold up."

Engineered tracks, to which Gilchrist was referring, entered the picture because some racetracks and horsemen gave up on the technology of maintaining conventional dirt courses. Whether synthetics were supposed to be safer, more resilient, or cheaper to maintain depended on who was doing the talking at the time. Even in the wake of Santa Anita's tough opening week, though, there were still trainers willing take a larger view of the issue.

"People forget about all the problems when we were on dirt," said Mike Puype, who stables Gilchrist's runners when he ships from Northern California. "All the quarter cracks and other issues."

Indyanne fit none of the indicators of a horse about to go wrong, beyond the fact that her paternal grandsire, In Excess, is not known for offspring racing much past their 3-year-old seasons. Yet there she is, finished as a racehorse and still facing an uphill battle to become a broodmare.

"She's still pretty sore," Gilchrist said, "so she still gets Bute and Banamine, but you can't just keep blamming her with heavy doses. Colic becomes a concern. So we're giving her Gastroguard to quiet her stomach. She eats hay, that's it, and her appetite hasn't gone away. They sure don't look much like a racehorse when you have to treat them that way, but that's what you have to do to get them out of it.

"You just have to stay optimistic, do everything you can, and hope that things go your way," Gilchrist added. "There's really not much you can do."

Nothing, except keep trying.