10/29/2007 12:00AM

Horses put needlessly at risk

EmailARCADIA, Calif. - It was an awful sight, a young Thoroughbred in full bloom, floundering on three legs in the middle of the stretch after giving heart and soul just to try and win a pari-mutuel horse race. The injuries were so severe that nothing could be done to save him, so the order was given to administer a lethal dose of barbituates, mercifully ending his life.

That's the way the day started at Santa Anita last Saturday, when Sea of Faces, a 2-year-old gelding who was making the second start of his career for Tommy Town Thoroughbreds and trainer Art Sherman, broke down approaching the eighth pole of a $23,000 starter allowance race at six furlongs.

"It was sickening," said Sherman, a former jockey. "I was in shock. It looked to me like he bobbled for a stride, and maybe in catching himself he hit the ground wrong and wound up breaking that left ankle. But I just don't know, and I sure didn't want to watch the rerun."

Misery loves company, and so it came to pass that 5 1/2 hours later, Sherman could join hands, at least in spirit, with Aidan O'Brien and his Breeders' Cup crew on the other side of the continent, where the shock of George Washington's fatal breakdown in the Breeders' Cup Classic was just beginning to take its toll.

American fans will be hard-pressed to appreciate the rock star status afforded George Washington in both his native Ireland and in Great Britain, the scene of his greatest triumphs. Fortunately, there were plenty of his camp followers on the scene in New Jersey to give the tragedy the perspective it deserved.

"Few flat horses ever captured the imagination like he did," wrote Marcus Armytage in The Telegraph. "His scintillating Guineas victory followed by his stubborn refusal to enter the winner's enclosure; the burst of speed that swept him to an imperious victory in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes; brilliance and attitude in equal measure."

The death of George Washington prompted Julian Muscat of The Times to call it "a soul-destroying Breeders' Cup renewal," while Peter Allison of The Scotsman described the so-called world championships as "a farcical, forgettable Breeders' Cup, run in atrocious mudbath conditions at Monmouth Park."

Fans have come to expect that the people who operate most major outdoor sports will take great pains to make sure the playing field is not a factor in the outcome of their ultimate events. To this end, there have been weather postponements at the World Series, the Masters, and Wimbledon, and civilization survived. Apparently, it doesn't work that way in horse racing.

The Breeders' Cup is billed as the most important day of the American racing season. Unfortunately, as a creature of television, it appears to be inflexibly planted on a certain date at a certain time, no matter what the prevailing conditions of play.

In truth, the Breeders' Cup should be no more than a piece of a championship puzzle - the largest piece, perhaps, but only a piece. And when conditions place a key role, whether from track bias or Biblical rains - the size of that piece should be even smaller.

This time around, it was a convenient coincidence that each of the eight winners on Saturday entered the race with legitimate championship credentials already in place. There were no flukes among them, but their task was made easier by the ground beneath their feet.

The fact that George Washington was the only fatality last Saturday should provide no comfort at all, and hopefully no encouragement to offer a Breeders' Cup under such conditions ever again. In most cases, when asked to race over such potentially dangerous tracks, self-preservation kicks in and a horse simply will refuse to put forth his best effort when the footing is so severe.

What results, then, is bad racing with good and noble winners. The ability of Curlin, Hard Spun, Ginger Punch, Hystericalady, Octave, Midnight Lute, Idiot Proof, War Pass, and Indian Blessing to run credible races under such conditions was a function of their innate mechanical attributes, to either compensate or ignore the main-track footing. Does anyone really believe that the 2007 Breeders' Cup displayed even a hint of the true talents of Street Sense, Lawyer Ron, Any Given Saturday, Tiago, Indian Vale, Unbridled Belle, Lear's Princess, Greg's Gold, Smokey Stover, or Tale of Ekati?

At least they all came back. There are enough names on the Breeders' Cup tombstone already, including Go for Wand, Pine Island, Mr Brooks, Shaker Knit, Mr. Nickerson, Spanish Fern, Funfair, Landseer, and now George Washington. Some went down on grass, some on fast dirt. The only common denominator was their determination to do all they were asked to do, at a very great rate of speed, under the most stressful of circumstances.

That leaves it squarely in the hands of the people who lead them over. Better care, better diagnostics, and better racing surfaces - including continued exploration of engineered alternatives - are the only things that will keep the casualty list from overwhelming the event.

Greg Wood of The Guardian newspaper wrote, "If Saturday proves the beginning of the end for dirt at the Breeders' Cup, George Washington will not have died in vain."

He's probably got the right idea, except for the fact that Sea of Faces went down on a synthetic surface. There just weren't as many people watching.