05/07/2008 11:00PM

Cries for reform ring hollow


NEW YORK - Last week in America, hundreds of thousands of livestock animals were slaughtered for domestic consumption; tens of thousands of companion animals were euthanized at animal shelters for lack of a home; thousands of abandoned horses continued to wallow in neglect, some of them bound for foreign slaughterhouses and dinner tables; and one filly died after running in the Kentucky Derby, the first fatality in the race in 75 years.

Yet the death of Eight Belles has made Thoroughbred racing the focus of more charges of animal abuse than the rest of man's inhumanity to animals combined. A New York Times sports columnist likened racing to dog fighting and urged the public to reclassify it as "animal cruelty" rather than sport. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which believes all animal racing should be banned, demanded that the filly's grief-stricken trainer and jockey be suspended and sanctioned for abuse.

Thousands of citizens, whipped into a tearful lather by irresponsible commentators and self-promoting activists, have been posting hysterical screeds on the Internet, demanding that racing either be terminated or reformed along lines ranging from the impractical to the idiotic. Anyone who disagrees with them is characterized as being in denial and shilling for an evil industry populated by uncaring animal abusers.

The truth is of course quite different, and a lot more complicated. Racehorses generally receive better care and have a higher survival rate than almost every animal with whom we share the planet. The vast majority of people involved in the sport are zealously devoted to the well-being of their horses and make countless personal and professional sacrifices on their behalf. The inconvenient fact is that racehorses are fragile and poorly constructed creatures, difficult to diagnose and prone to take bad steps and aggravate undetectable skeletal flaws whether they're racing at high or low speeds on dirt, grass, or rubber.

That doesn't mean that racing should ignore the public outcry, however ill-informed it may be. Of course we can do better, and maybe something good can come out of all this if it prompts an increase in funding for veterinary research and improved testing for performance-enhancing drugs that might be weakening the breed and masking injuries.

Yet racing must also be strong enough to resist calls for simplistic and unproven countermeasures simply to mollify a perpetually outraged fringe of complainers who will lose interest and move on to another cause in the next few weeks.

The outraged are demanding that all American racetracks install synthetic racing surfaces tomorrow, claiming it has been proven they are safer and the sport would benefit. No such thing has been established beyond the anecdotal level, and responsible researchers say there is not a statistically significant amount of data from which to draw any such conclusions.

There are some promising initial indications that synthetics may be a kinder surface for training, where 90 percent of racetrack injuries occur, but they are being compared with the dirt surfaces they replaced, which in many cases were not being maintained as well as they should have been. It's entirely unclear whether the $10 million cost of a synthetic-track installation could not have accomplished the same or more if spent on improving the dirt tracks that have served racing pretty well for centuries. It should continue to be studied over a meaningful period of time, along with concerns that the new surfaces may be causing an increase in soft-tissue injuries, increasing human and equine ingestion of environmental contaminants, and perhaps rewarding and perpetuating slower and less-sturdy breeding stock.

The jury is not merely still out - it has yet to be convened. Proponents of surface-switches deliberately fail to report inconvenient evidence. Last summer, during parallel race meets at the nation's two toniest resort tracks, there were two fatal breakdowns in 36 days of dirt racing at Saratoga and four such breakdowns in 42 days of racing over newly installed Polytrack at Del Mar. This is limited and inconclusive data, but certainly suggests that switching surfaces is far from the clear-cut choice or solution some would rush to implement.

The New York Times reported Wednesday that the New York Racing Association "is studying synthetic surfaces and is not averse to switching from the dirt tracks now at Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga Race Course." Well, not exactly, as track officials said in refuting the report Thursday. There in fact is no such sentiment favoring such a switch, and a completely understandable aversion to spending $50 million to replace its generally excellent dirt surfaces.

"This is a very big issue for the whole industry that needs to be discussed," Nick Zito, the Hall of Fame trainer and chairman of the National Horse Protection Coalition, told The New York Post. "Why spend $50 million on synthetic garbage we know nothing about? Before we rush to judgment again, shouldn't we study how much money it would take to put in safe, state-of-the-art dirt tracks?"