05/25/2006 12:00AM

Industry must look at safety


NEW YORK - The racing community's response to Barbaro's breakdown in the Preakness has been consistent with its past performances in other times of crisis: Excellent on an individual basis, but severely lacking on an institutional level.

The sport owes a debt of gratitude to Barbaro's owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, and his surgeon, Dr. Dean Richardson, not only for their extraordinary dedication to trying to save the colt's life but also for their extensive and candid public comments. Their compassion and grace were just what the public needed to see and hear, and went a long way toward drowning out the predictable chorus of bashers.

The worst offender in that regard was The New York Times, which on its editorial page ignorantly thundered about "the horror inherent in racing 3-year-olds" and ran insulting nonsense blaming the customers in its sports columns, where George Vecsey wrote: "They are all nice horses, yet racing is complicated by gambling. I have a suspicion that a lot of people who bet on poor Barbaro last Saturday would also bet on cockroach races, if parimutuel machines carried such action."

Meanwhile, even pundits more sympathetic to the game fell into the trap of blaming what happened on either the supposed increasingly fragile nature of the breed or the schedule of the Triple Crown races.

Dr. Richardson was asked at the press conference, "In our quest for speed in horse racing, are we breeding a less sturdy horse?" That premise has been widely accepted as fact, but his answer could not have been more emphatic:

"Categorically no," he said. "No. I think really when you - really, look at Thoroughbred racehorses. I mean, the incidence of injury in Thoroughbred in racing is not any higher than it ever was. It's still a risky endeavor. Horses are going fast. These are massive animals running fast. There's no evidence whatsoever that the prevalence of injury in Thoroughbred racing is increasing."

Nor is there any evidence that the Triple Crown is taking any particular toll. The premature retirement of some star 3-year-olds for economic gain has clouded the issue, but the fact is that Derby winners have been replicating their form in the Preakness with a higher degree of consistency in recent years than ever before. Barbaro in particular was as lightly raced as he is stoutly bred, and the idea that he could not race 100 yards without breaking down because he had raced two weeks earlier in the Derby is absurd. Those who would make the Triple Crown races shorter or farther apart are proposing an irrelevant remedy to a nonexistent problem.

As reassuring as the Jacksons and Dr. Richardson have been, as have Michael Matz and Edgar Prado, racing's organizational reaction has been inadequate. Simple statements of concern and regret from the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and Magna Entertainment were innocuous and well-intentioned, but lacked any sense of action or urgency. A more appropriate response would have been to express a commitment to do anything and everything possible to address equine safety.

Compare the situation to what happened when race-car driver Dale Earnhardt was killed in the 2001 Daytona 500. Nascar convened a panel of experts that formulated stronger safety recommendations, and new equipment and procedures were quickly instituted. There may be no similarly easy upgrades in horse racing, but it seems callous if not irresponsible not to make a similar effort, even if the conclusion is that nothing can be done differently to prevent similar accidents. It's at least worth asking whether there are enough facilities like the one at New Bolton and sufficient access to them. Now would be the time to get the government to commit to diverting some parimutuel taxes and slots revenues to animal-welfare funding.

The last time racing found itself on the front pages after a traumatic event was the Fix Six scandal at the 2002 Breeders' Cup. In that case, the industry's response was swift and costly, as $2 million was raised within a week to hire Giuliani Partners for damage-control and security recommendations. Whether that was money well spent remains open to question, but at least the gesture gave the impression that the industry considered it a serious problem worth its time and money. It would be unfortunate if the public was left with the impression that racing cares more about keeping computer hackers out of its tote systems than in exploring every possible way to protect the lives of its horses.