01/27/2009 12:00AM

Fatality spike puzzles track officials


In a 10-day period, seven horses have suffered fatal injuries while training at Fair Grounds, a yet to be explained spike in the mortality rate.

The recent breakdowns began when two Tom Amoss-trained horses suffered fatal injuries on Jan. 17. Another Amoss-trained horse broke down the next morning, and since then, four more horses have sustained fatal injuries while training. The most recent injury came Monday, when a Mark Casse-trained filly broke a hind pastern galloping out after a work.

Other trainers who have lost horses are Steve Margolis, Bernie Flint, and Michael Thompson. The Flint- and Thompson-trained horses broke shoulders while galloping, but the other breakdowns occurred during works. The injuries included a broken tibia, a fractured hind cannon bone, and two front cannon-bone fractures.

Over the same period, no horses have broken down in races, but there have been eight racing breakdowns this meet, according to state veterinarian Dr. Tom David, who provided details on the training fatalities. Fair Grounds averages 10 to 14 racing breakdowns per season, according to David. While many tracks compile reports of all training fatalities, such records aren't formally kept at Fair Grounds. At the ongoing meet, which began Nov. 14 and is just more than half over, David said there have been 10 training fatalities.

"I can't figure it out," David said. "They're not the kind of breakdowns you usually see with sore horses, like an old suspensory [ligament] that leads to breaking down at the ankle. These are horses that look sound."

David said horsemen had not complained about the Fair Grounds surface, which has long carried a reputation for safety. Eric Halstrom, Fair Grounds' assistant general manager, said he'd spoken with many horsemen and also had not heard complaints.

"You ask anyone who's out there all the time, and they all say the track's in great shape," Halstrom said.

Brian Jabelmann was hired as Fair Grounds' track maintenance supervisor on Dec. 31 and has been deeply troubled by the injuries. Jabelmann said shortly after being hired that both the dirt and turf courses at Fair Grounds needed long-term renovation that he hoped to undertake in the off-season. Jabelmann said Monday that routine tests checking the banking and the base of the surface had revealed no problems.

"I don't believe there's a problem, but there's something going on there," said Jabelmann, who has worked for Louisiana Downs, Fort Erie, and Woodbine, among other tracks. "We're running more tests, but on the surface, there's nothing really showing."

Jabelmann said samples of the track surface had been sent to a Michigan laboratory for analysis. The results could help show whether the composition of the material has changed over time. Fair Grounds has not had a full-time track superintendent since 2006-07, when Roy Favret worked the track for one season. Javier Barajas, Arlington's full-time trackman, flew in and out of New Orleans during the 2007-08 meet and early this season to oversee maintenance. Halstrom confirmed that no new material had been added to the surface during the last off-season.

No one seems to be blaming Jabelmann, and many horsemen have lauded his work.

"Here's a guy just got here Dec. 31, and he's worked tirelessly on this track," said longtime Fair Grounds trainer Al Stall. "From where I stand up against the fence at the 4 1/2-furlong pole, the track looks smooth and very level."

Leading trainer Steve Asmussen, who worked many of his better horses Monday, said he'd had no problems with the track.

"We run more than anybody, we've worked more than anybody, and the horses have been coming back great," Asmussen said.

But Stall said that he has noticed changes in the Fair Grounds surface this season.

"The track is dull, it's got no bounce to it," Stall said. "This year, the horses hit with more of a thud than a bounce."

That perspective was shared by trainer Mike Stidham, who said he has experienced increased hoof problems often associated with a hard track.

"I'm not a trackman, but I know the type of injuries we've seen are concussion injuries," said Stidham, a 10-year Fair Grounds veteran. "We've not seen as many of that type of injuries before."

There were no breakdowns Tuesday, and the hope remains that the rash of injuries will prove no more than a tragic flare-up.

"If this were to happen till March 28, that'd be different," said Stall, "but I think it's just a spike."