12/07/2006 12:00AM

'Safety first' a fine rallying cry


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Before devoting the weekend to a careful reading of the report submitted to the President this week by the Iraq Study Group, concerned citizens of the Thoroughbred world might want to take a look at another recently released set of recommendations designed to extricate horse racing from a quagmire of its own.

This may not be widely known, but there was a strategic plan put forth by the organizers of the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit, held in mid-October at the Keeneland sales pavilion. In truth, most racing fans didn't even know there was a summit, and that's okay, since most of these gabfests end up little more than a whirl of Shakespearean "sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Sponsored by The Jockey Club and its partner in equine veterinary research, the Grayson Foundation, along with the Keeneland Association, the summit gathered together a cast of both the usual and some unusual suspects. The panel was not just bipartisan - a bragging point of the Iraq Study Group - it was downright multilateral, featuring owners, trainers, jockeys, veterinarians, breeders, track management, bloodstock salesmen, and racing officials.

The goal of the summiteers was comprehensive: "To identify critical issues that affect horse health and/or shorten the career of racehorses and to develop action plans to address each issue." More than one answer was expected, and, in fact, 32 issues of concern were culled from discussions, ranging from "poor durability of the breed" to "inconsistency of racetrack surfaces" to the "decline of horsemanship."

In the end, the summit outlined a wish list of reasonably detailed, though painfully obvious, primary objectives, along with tasks and time lines for their implementation. The list included:

* Development of a national injury reporting and surveillance system.

* Instituting education and exam requirements for licensees.

* Attending to the negative issues surrounding hoof care.

* Safer racing surfaces throughout the country.

* Encouraging breeding of horses with longer racing careers.

* Increasing race entries.

* Developing and maintaining a health, medical, and injury record-keeping system.

Each one is an admirable goal and deserves immediate action. Bear in mind, though, that an outsider to the racing game would look at such a list, note the amount of money bet on Thoroughbreds each year (around $15 billion), check the calendar (almost 2007) and wonder why such topics are even issues at all. How can a sport be so hopelessly behind its own curve?

The answer is sadly simple. It is impossible to underestimate the persistently frontier nature of Thoroughbred racing. From the flesh-and-blood worlds of breeding, training, and racing to the proliferation of imperious profiteers - both corporate and individual - racing sometimes seems no more civilized than Deadwood at the height of a gold rush.

Bottom-line pressures are real (my favorite summit issue was defined as the unbalance of "economic risk to reward"), and half-measures to solve the problems identified by the summit may be the best we can expect. But if anyone is making a list of drastic measures to be taken when all else fails, why not try these:

* Discouraging the trend toward breeding for speed is a prayer that needs an answer. But it can only be done with a large carrot and a big stick. So why not offer premium purses on races that mix geldings with male horses ages 4 and up. And while we're at it, the Graded Stakes Committee can do its part by refusing to grant Grade 1 status to any race less than a mile. Heck, make it a mile and one-eighth.

* Worried about improper or "unintentional" drug enhancements of the racehorse? Then centralize the distribution and administration of all medications at a racetrack, restrict the number of practicing veterinarians, spend the necessary money to install surveillance cameras, and start suspending owners along with their trainers for drug violations.

* Although a good idea, it would be hard to outlaw 2-year-old in training sales (restraint of trade issues impinge). But if their abuses persist - steroids, 10-second exhibitions of senseless speed - make the sales grads ineligible to race for a full nine months after going through the ring. At least that ought to be time enough to clean out their systems and heal their knees.

Most of racing's leadership was gathered in Tucson this week for the annual Symposium on Racing and Gaming. Amidst all the panels dealing with marketing, wagering, and the everlasting glory of casinos, there was one lonely little session called "Safe and Sound" addressing the physical welfare of the animal. Let's hope it was well attended.

In the meantime, the report from the Keeneland/Jockey Club Welfare and Safety Summit is available for all eyes at www.jockeyclub.com. It is worth a look, if only to keep the issues in mind. At the very least, the leaders of horse racing can take a cue from the President, who was given a report that described his Iraq war as "sliding into chaos," and responded:

"It is a report that brings some really very interesting proposals, and we will take every proposal seriously, and we will act in a timely fashion."