05/06/2008 11:00PM

Changes will start with tracks


Now that everyone from Bill O'Reilly to the Huffington Post has weighed in on the tragic death of Eight Belles at the Kentucky Derby, this might be a good time to review the main points being raised by media critics.

It's probably not a good idea, though, to dwell upon the attempt by CBS News anchor Katie Couric to compare the death of the Derby runner-up to the loss of a political campaign, in one of her "Notebook" commentaries about Sen. Hillary Clinton backing Eight Belles.

"Without a doubt the superstitious will call it an omen," Couric said, "a well-fought fight but an unhappy ending for the female."

Unhappy ending? Cold as ice, that Couric character. Otherwise, for the most part, the Eight Belles commentary falls into three categories:

First, there is the outright hysteria and name-calling, typified by New York Times columnist William C. Rhoden.

"Why do we refuse to put the brutal game of racing in the realm of mistreatment of animals?" Rhoden wrote. "At what point do we at least raise the question about the efficacy of thousand-pound horses racing at full throttle on spindly legs?

"This," Rhoden concluded, "is bullfighting."

(Reporter's note: I've been to a bullfight. No one cheered when Eight Belles went down.)

Next, there are the thinly veiled threats that always seem to be leveled at times like these. This week, they could be found, among other places, on the editorial page of the Los Angeles Times.

"For all the anthropomorphic talk about racehorses being 'family' and 'valiantly' striving to win or overcome injuries, the horses have no choice in this multibillion-dollar industry," the editorial said. "The racing world would be smart to put a higher priority on reining in horse injuries and deaths, before public outrage leads to calls for more draconian controls."

Finally, there are the fixers, those critics who take the time to assemble a menu of solutions to what they perceive as the problem - in this case, the problem of Thoroughbreds breaking down so often on national television. The fixers sometimes lapse into hysteria, and often their recommendations are accompanied by thinly veiled threats. Still, many of the suggestions are constructive, if not revolutionary, and among them are safer surfaces, banning of whips, reduced pressure on racing 2-year-olds, and elimination of drugs.

But because the Eight Belles breakdown presents such a mystery, such a complete failure of the equine infrastructure, there has been a deafening chorus this time around questioning the efficacy of the breed itself. Journalists who've never watched dogs mate suddenly find themselves parroting industry pundits who complain that there's just too much darned Raise a Native blood floating the boats, and that the business should start breeding again for stamina.

Good luck with that. Breeding is the least altruistic component of the Thoroughbred business. If you want to make that bunch change its tune, dangle dollars, not guilt. Poor Mr. Prospector gets the blame for the frailty of the current breed because his early runners fit neatly into a playing field of quick exploitation at a time when new money was entering the game. Suddenly, that particular gene pool was hot stuff, and breeders were off to the races.

Decades later, the breed has been imprinted, and in terms of genetics, what has been a long time coming will be a long time gone. Remodeling the breed will be a slow process, but first it will be necessary to increase the incentive to produce a different product; otherwise, the cruel realities of the unfettered free market will lead to racing's own version of the subprime mortgage disaster.

The solution is already out there, waiting to be spread. Perfecting and adopting the technology of engineered surfaces - a combination of natural and synthetic material built to drain moisture and cushion impact - is the only way to prompt a change in the breed. And as neutral parties in the breeding, buying, and selling of Thoroughbreds, the various racetrack owners are the ones who must carry the tune.

Engineered surfaces, when properly installed and maintained, bring horses back into play that for years have been damned with the tag "grass horses." In fact, their only crime was an inability to run an opening quarter in 21 seconds, or sit right behind such madness, inhaling a face full of sandy loam.

Bob Baffert, a three-time Derby winner, recognized the consequences of the movement toward engineered surfaces from the start as he watched expensive horses bought at 2-year-old sales beaten by their more modestly marketed cousins.

"I've been buying the wrong kind of horse for these tracks," Baffert said.

Baffert's initial reaction made business sense. He took his top horses elsewhere, to compete on the kind of dirt that accommodated their brand of speed. But if engineered surfaces continue to spread, reducing the demand for such early, unforgiving speed, then buyers will shop elsewhere and breeders ultimately will respond.

In the end, it is a simple market model - make gasoline scarce enough or expensive enough, and sooner or later, car manufacturers will come up with another kind of car. Smart horsemen who can see beyond the end of their own shed rows will figure it out. If the breed can survive, it can be changed.