08/22/2008 11:00PM

Data debunking myths gets buried

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Most reports on last Sunday's Jockey Club Round Table here centered on the sensible recommendations of its Safety and Welfare Committee concerning medication and drug testing, and properly so. The only downside to that focus is that it obscured an important presentation by Dr. Larry Bramlage, a committee member and the president of the American College of Veterinary Surgeons.

Bramlage addressed some of the most frequent and damning charges leveled at the racing industry in the aftermath of the Eight Belles breakdown May 1.

"Statements have been made in the popular press, read, re-quoted, and in some instances misquoted to the point that they began to be regarded as fact," said Bramlage. "We believe that the charges must be addressed based upon data, not opinion. Therefore, for the information that we examined, our conclusions are rooted in the pragmatic 'the data shows' rather than the dubious 'we believe.' "

The first popular notion that Bramlage and the committee tested was the idea that racing horses as 2-year-olds is inhumane and leads to shorter careers and more injuries. This position is endorsed by the Humane Society of the United States and led sportswriters from prominent newspapers to call for a ban on 2-year-old racing and for changing the Triple Crown into a series for 4-year-olds.

Oops.

"The data is definitive," Bramlage said. "It shows that horses that began racing as 2-year-olds are much more successful, have much longer careers, and, by extrapolation, show less predisposition to injury than horses that did not begin racing until their 3-year-old year. It is absolute on all the data sets that the training and racing of 2-year-old Thoroughbreds has no ill effect on the horses' race-career longevity or quality. In fact, the data would indicate that the ability to make at least one start as a 2-year-old has a very strong positive effect on the longevity and success of a racehorse. This strong positive effect on the quality and quantity of performance would make it impossible to argue that these horses that race as 2-year-olds are compromised."

Next up was the idea that commercial breeders have ruined the Thoroughbred, either by overbreeding through the Native Dancer sire line or by employing nefarious methods to prepare horses for public auction. The Jockey Club's data showed absolutely no correlation between either any of the dominant sire lines, or sales yearlings as a group, and foreshortened careers.

"Data from foal crops 1989 through 2001 were examined," Bramlage said. "The data shows that the probability of racing has, in fact, risen from 65.8 percent for the foal crop of 1989 to 72.5 percent for the foal crop of 2001. So, the surgical management of yearlings and preparation techniques for the sale are actually helping rather than hurting the chances for a horse to race."

It would have been nice had racing been armed with this kind of research at the time these charges were being made, so it could have refuted them in a timely manner. Instead, irresponsible advocates and journalists declared open season on racing, and too many industry representatives tried to curry public favor by agreeing with instead of challenging these flawed assertions.

Now that there is data to debunk them, it would also be nice if those who claimed Eight Belles's accident was "predictable" and "waiting to happen" would apologize, but I wouldn't hold my breath.

Hooray for also-eligibles

Breeders' Cup Ltd. has made one bizarre and unpopular decision after another this year, from staging its races on an untested surface, to holding them in California two years running, to renaming the Distaff the "Ladies' Classic" for its 25th running. The organization got something very right, however, by announcing Friday that this year's races will include "also-eligible" lists for the first time.

Any race that draws more than 14 will have up to two of the overflow entrants designated as also-eligibles, who can draw into the race if there are defections between entry time Wednesday and the start of advance betting Friday morning. This will ensure fuller fields and give a few horses an opportunity to run who otherwise would have been excluded despite available stalls in the starting gate.

It's such a good and easy change that perhaps now Churchill Downs, which has been inexplicably opposed to doing the same thing for the Kentucky Derby, will follow suit.