03/17/2005 12:00AM

Getting to the root of the problem

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Anyone who thinks racing's problems have been solved by the aggressive milkshake detection programs now in place in California and other jurisdictions needs to take a fresh look at an essay published 13 years ago in the May/June edition of the North American Review, under the byline of one Gregory L. Ferraro, called "The Corruption of Nobility (The Rise & Fall of Thoroughbred Racing in America)."

There is plenty more to do.

Better known as Dr. Greg Ferraro, gifted equine surgeon and racetrack practitioner, the author was walking out on a professional limb and taking a sharp saw with him. By 1992 standards, few in the hierarchy of the sport wanted to hear what Ferraro was saying.

Sobering, to be sure, but bracing in its historical narrative and unflinching in its conclusions, the essay makes the case that the traditionally cherished model of horse racing was systematically destroyed by its own popularity. A significant post-WWII increase in betting handle made racing a juicy source of government tax revenues, followed by huge stallion syndications and escalating yearling prices of the 1970's and early 1980's that shifted the balance of power to market breeders.

"This fundamental economic change in racing, from pure sport to strictly business, had a profound effect on the horse itself," Ferraro wrote. "The change resulted in an initial benefit to the horse, but later it would become the animal's undoing."

That undoing, Ferraro concluded, was fostered by a perversion of the role of veterinary medicine, especially when it came to the application of remarkable new drugs and surgical techniques in the repair of the modern racehorse. As Ferraro put it:

"Healing and eliminating the athletes' suffering gradually were superseded by the owner's need to protect his investment. The beneficiary of this great veterinary achievement was no longer solely the horse."

Ferraro made many of the same points when quoted in a subsequent Sports Illustrated story. That got him the cold shoulder among some clients and colleagues, but Ferraro stuck by his guns. Eventually, he committed himself to a new track, as director of the Center for Equine Health at the University of California at Davis, where he not only supervises myriad detailed soundness studies, but also spends time in the classroom with the equine veterinarians of tomorrow.

"The reason I left the track and came here is that I could do more from this end, and I still think I can," Ferraro said this week from his campus office. "Regardless of anything else, the business can't survive with the current attrition rate of horses. If you can figure out ways to avoid injury, ways they can be trained differently so they can't get hurt, eventually we may end up helping more horses than I could have as a practicing vet."

Ferraro's teaching load includes a class in ethics. What a concept. It should come as no surprise that he uses his North American Review essay as part of the curriculum, and that he doesn't pull any punches when it comes to the realities of working as a racetrack vet.

"I tell them that being a racetrack veterinarian today is not about medicine," Ferraro said. "It's about portfolio management. It's about using your skills as a team physician to get your owner out, financially. Because of that, a veterinarian must be prepared to draw an ethical line, separating what they will do and what they will not do."

And how do his students react?

"They're shocked, most of the time," Ferraro replied. "Then you explain it. You tell them about somebody who's maybe a lawyer, with three or four buddies, and none of them really know anything about horses. They just like to gamble. They bought this horse for $2 million, and they know if they don't win a classic, they're not going to get out. So everything done with the horse is concentrated on the 3-year-old year, because that's your best chance to get a return on your investment."

Every constituency in racing needs its advocates - bettors, stable hands, trainers, breeders, owners, jockeys, and management - to keep the game fair and the playing field level. Ferraro contends that the horse needs an advocate most of all.

"The incentive in racing - and all athletics, for that matter - is always to go, go, go," Ferraro said. "The owner, the trainer, the jockey, the groom - everybody wants to go. The vet is part of the team, and he wants the horse to be successful, too.

"But the veterinarian is the only one who has the training and the knowledge to know when it's time to stop," Ferraro said. "At some point, in every horse's career, the vet has to stand up and say, 'That's enough. If we go any farther, we will be endangering this horse.' The problem now is that not a lot of veterinarians are willing to take that stand.

"Almost everybody who buys a horse, buys a horse to do something with them athletically, whether it's riding in the park, racing or jumping, or cutting cows," Ferraro added. "The very fact that you're using that horse for something puts him at additional risk. If you can say that you have done everything you can to minimize that risk, then I think you are on firm ground. That's where the veterinarian should be coming from."