06/07/2006 12:00AM

Best medical advice is preventative


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Never mind Polytrack, Tapeta Footing, StaLok, or other cutting-edge artificial surfaces. Based on recent traumas sustained by marquee colts in classic events, Saturday's 138th version of the Belmont Stakes will be the first one ever run on eggshells.

Television producers, racing execs, and skittish fans are at this moment engaged in lung-expanding exercise, preparing for that moment late when they will be forced to hold their breath for nearly 2 1/2 minutes. With the grisly images of Barbaro's hind leg and Horatio Nelson's front leg still fried into the psyches, there might even be a certain percentage of viewers who might leave the room when the gates open, only to peek around the door jamb at tense intervals, as if they were watching the director's cut of "Alien."

It's a safe bet that every conceivable prerace precaution will be mustered to make sure the full field of Belmont 3-year-olds gets around Big Sandy's mile and a half in one precious piece. But then, there have been practices firmly established for a number of years that were supposed to prevent the high incidence of such breakdowns in the first place.

Track maintenance, vet lists, prerace veterinary examinations, and final

veterinary scrutiny from paddock to post are all part of the daily racing routine. The fact that even the most highly valued Thoroughbreds continue to injure themselves has put these procedures under fresh examination, and rightfully so. Either the system works for all racehorses, or it doesn't.

As reported by Alan Lee in The Times of London, Andrew Cooper, director of racing at Epsom Racecourse, called for a review of the regulations governing horses being withdrawn at the start, in the wake of Horatio Nelson's fatal injury nearing the finish of the Epsom Derby. In the moments before the race, the colt's condition was under review by not only jockey Kieren Fallon and racecourse vet Dr. Jenny Hall, but also trainer Aidan O'Brien.

"One question that arose was whether we should have a rule that if a jockey expresses any concern at the start, his horse should not run," Cooper said, according to the report. "This incident will bring these procedures under scrutiny, and that change would make the whole thing bombproof."

Bombproof, perhaps. But such a rule also would put a bull's-eye squarely on jockeys, burdening them with far too much responsibility in a situation fraught with hovering pressure from owners, trainers, bookmakers (legal and otherwise) and gamblers, not to mention the internal conflicts between self-preservation and the need to make a living.

In the end, it should be the onsite veterinarian, a neutral arbiter, who issues the final verdict and takes the responsibility for whether or not a horse should start. Dr. Steve Buttgenbach, Southern California's official track vet, has tried to establish consistent policies based upon common sense.

"If a rider comes to me and does not want to ride, I won't let the horse run - no matter what," Buttgenbach said. "Do you realize the liability involved if I call for a replacement jockey and anything happens in that race?

"I've had more than one trainer get mad at me for scratching a horse going to the gate, but they get over it," Buttgenbach went on. "There have been situations with apprentices, riding for Eclipse Award-winning trainers. Their horse will be off, but they really want to ride for that trainer. I've had to tell them, sorry, you're not riding this one today. And I will tell the trainer it was my decision, not the apprentice's."

When faced with a horse breaking prematurely through the gate, as did Barbaro in the moments before he was hurt in the Preakness, Buttgenbach advocates a case-by-case policy.

"It's a hard call," he said. "I certainly would have hated to have been the vet who scratched the horse who was supposed to win the Triple Crown.

"Years ago, I saw a horse break through the gate in a stakes race and run all the way around the track before they caught her," Buttgenbach recalled. "They put her back in and she still won. The owner of another horse in the race sued the stewards for letting the winner run.

"I've got trainers here who never want their horses to run if they break through the gate.

"On the other hand, Neil Drysdale had one break through the gate before a race at Santa Anita, and he is very conservative.

I had his number in my cell phone and called him, and told him I couldn't see anything wrong with his horse. He ran, and won. So I think it can be valuable sometimes to consult with a trainer, but it should not be the trainer's call."

In the end, the best thing to do would be to let qualified people make reasoned judgments, keeping them free from as much pressure as possible. Despite the best efforts of trainers and their private vets, not every horse who goes postwarda is sound enough to race, and even if they are, things can happen between the barn and the starting gate.

"I don't care if it's an $8,000 claimer or a million-dollar race," Buttgenbach said. "In fact, I don't even look at the program. You can't think about what the race is worth. You've got to think about what the horse is worth as a creature, and what the life of the jockey is worth."