05/25/2006 11:00PM

Letters to the editor

Sabina Louise Pierce/Univ. of Penn.
His racing career ended by a misstep early in the Preakness, Barbaro faces a delicate period of recuperation.

Barbaro injury raises a host of concerns

After Barbaro's horrific breakdown in the Preakness, the Maryland Jockey Club's chief executive officer, Joe De Francis, was quoted in a press release as saying, "At this time all we can do is let the Jacksons, Mike Matz, and Edgar Prado know our thoughts and prayers are with them and our fingers are crossed that Barbaro pulls through."

I vehemently disagree that this is "all we can do." We can be proactive instead of lamenting, regretting, and accepting.

Physics, fatigue, accidents, and racing surfaces are all contributing factors in Thoroughbred breakdowns. Racing surfaces are controllable. Turfway Park installed Polytrack for its 2005-2006 winter meet. After eight months of use, only three horses were euthanized because of racing injuries. In January 2005 alone, six horses were euthanized because of racing injuries on the natural dirt track.

The industry could create a commission to investigate and review the causes of breakdowns. Instead of concentrating on "racinos" and video lottery terminals for future revenue, why not commence an operation that improves how the sport is operated? Not only would this save equine lives, but it would illustrate how genuinely concerned and dedicated the industry is to improving itself. This step alone would instill faith not only in the die-hard fans but in fans to be.

I write this for Barbaro, Up an Octave, What a Song, Prairie Bayou, Go for Wand, Ruffian, and countless equine athletes. We must take the initiative and rectify this issue or at least abate it. The slightest effort could not only save a future superstar but wrest a declining sport from the abyss.

Kim French
Louisville, Ky.

Break through gate seen as crucial

Given that horses generate their drive through the hind legs, I believe it likely that Barbaro first suffered his fracture when he broke through the gate. It was then likely displaced after he was loaded back in and forced to run on it.

While veterinarians apparently followed protocol with a simple visual inspection, I believe this procedure should be reexamined to include a more thorough exam. Delaying the start for this type of exam would also afford trainers the chance to scratch if so desired and the betting public a chance to cancel their wagers. While hindsight is certainly 20/20, if this protocol had been in place and the fracture detected, its possible Barbaro's racing career could have resumed and his life might never have been in doubt.

While my thoughts and prayers, like most of America's, are with Barbaro, and I am buoyed by the progress he has made, I am sadly reminded that this injury is fatal in the vast majority of Thoroughbreds who suffer it. I hope the possibility that this occurred during the gate mishap at least gets proper consideration, because I believe its being wrongly dismissed as very unlikely.

Deke Schultze
Acton, Mass.

Modern era plagued by speed demons

Let us hope that the racing establishment once and for all accepts the undeniable reality again illustrated in the Barbaro incident. The establishment is still heading down the slippery slope of sacrificing this wonderful sport, its noble equine participants, and the safety of all the talented jockeys, for the sole purpose of producing fast times.

Tracks are sealed immediately after rain falls, and the surface perfected with plenty of water and shallow harrowing. While safety is certainly a concern, this is a major part of an effort to record fast final times. In years gone by, when these type of incidents were fewer and farther in between, we saw tracks that were labeled "slow" and "heavy." Now we see low-priced claimers running as fast as Dr. Fager and his peers.

Perpetual inbreeding makes the horses faster but more vulnerable, particularly in the area of their lower legs and hooves. Thank goodness Turfway Park has broken the mold. Hopefully, all Kentucky and California racing venues will follow suit and introduce the already-proven safer artificial surfaces. The times will certainly be slower and the racing a bit more competitive (as evidenced by the recent Turfway Park meet).

Perhaps the races will also be more difficult to handicap, but the rewards of seeing large fields in competitive races - and most important of all, far fewer injuries - makes the major alteration worth the effort.

Richard Napolitano
Valley Stream, N.Y.

Commitment to future needed

As we pray for Barbaro's recovery, may all of us who owe so much joy to this wonderful game commit to doing all we can to improve conditions for these wonderful animals. Moreover, since these horses depend on so many hardworking, largely anonymous backstretch employees, let us do all we can for them and their families as well.

Let us do all this in the name of Barbaro. Let us hope that he can live on for many years and watch his offspring benefit from a game we will improve, a game we must improve.

Bill Feingold
Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.

Time is right for a tribute

I have been an avid horseplayer for a number of years and have seen way too many horses go down and be not so fortunate as to live to see another day. While I accept that as part of racing, it still doesn't make it any easier to watch.

I think Belmont Park and The National Thoroughbred Racing Association should have some kind of special tribute to not only Barbaro and all his connections (especially Edgar Prado) but to all horses who race for a living. There has to be a positive spin on this to get the general public back. This is not just about horse racing but the relationship of the horse to their caretakers.

Growing up on a dairy farm as a young kid, I had a huge horse - Old Kate - who was more like a pet to me (she probably didn't think so when I used her for plowing the garden) and better yet, like a friend. These animals are special to those who had the opportunity be around one and those who enjoy the majesty about them.

The powers that be should try to make something really positive out of this, not just to get more fans to the track but to make people aware of how the animals can really impact our hearts. If they do that, fans will follow them to the finish line.

Mark Arnold
Jacksonville, Fla.

Incident indicates basic faults

I would argue that there are two main reasons why Barbaro's injury is indicative of a general malaise in horse racing: (1) the weakening of the Thoroughbred breed and the propensity to breed for speed and not stamina and endurance, and (2) the proliferation of performance-enhancing drugs.

Both these causes are linked. The weakening of the breed is in part because various drugs are being passed through generations of horses. Lasix, a diuretic popularized some two decades ago and now permitted in every state, has never been sufficiently proven to be effective in preventing bleeding in horses. Furthermore, the proliferation of "supertrainers" in the last 10 years has revealed many trainers who win at staggering percentages, especially after claiming a horse.

In Europe, the modern Thoroughbred is much more stable for several reasons: (1) a total ban on drugs, (2) races are run almost strictly on turf, (3) a general patience with horses, and, less notably, (4) the training of horses at expansive farms in the countryside in an element more suited to positive health and safety. In the United States, horses remain in small stalls for most of their days, train at short distances that stress speed and add to training injuries, and remain packed in barn areas that are often nasty environments.

The breeding industry has also added to the rise in breakdowns on the racetrack. The fashion of breeding to Storm Cat and his offspring has caused many horses to be more proficient at six furlongs than 1 1/4 miles. Horses now are bred to win at a young age when they are physically immature. But who can blame horsemen who rush their horses to the races at 2 with the great purse money in this division?

Horse racing is in denial, but it must come to terms with its mountain of problems. It may be very painful and take decades to overcome. To undergo that pain, however, is the only way horse racing can survive.

Ryan Goldberg
Astoria, N.Y.