05/15/2008 11:00PM

Slower doesn't mean safer

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NEW YORK - How fast is too fast and how much is too much?

Those are two fundamental questions about horse racing that are a lot more complicated than critics of the sport have represented them in the wake of the Eight Belles accident after the Kentucky Derby.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has demanded that if racing can't be stopped altogether, it should be reformed so that horses race less frequently and over "slower, kinder" surfaces, presumably making the game safer by reducing the number of catastrophic breakdowns. Other outraged critics have called these measures no-brainers and attacked the sport for not instituting them already. Yet it is entirely unclear that either would have the intended beneficial effect.

PETA's demand for federal legislation limiting the number of starts a horse should make every year is an exercise in unintended black humor, given that racing has regrettably managed to accomplish this all by itself without even trying. According to statistics compiled by The Jockey Club, racehorses made an average of 11.31 starts per year 50 years ago and only 6.37 starts today. So why isn't racing safer than ever?

There's a counter-argument that if anything, maybe horses aren't racing as much as they should be. Thirty years ago, the average Kentucky Derby entrant was making his 17th career start; this year, the average was seven. The champions of yesteryear who had full campaigns at 2, 3, and 4 routinely made 8 or 10 starts as 2-year-olds, mostly in sprints. Isn't it possible that more experience and foundation, starting in shorter races, might actually improve a horse's fitness and durability as opposed to a briefer series of more widely spaced efforts at longer distances?

A call for slower racing is similarly murky. First of all, a synthetic track is not necessarily a slower track. The Polytrack surfaces at Del Mar and Keeneland have produced some slow times, but the Cushion Track used at Hollywood and Santa Anita has frequently been faster than dirt, producing a raft of track records at both venues, including Bob Black Jack's world record 1:06.62 for six furlongs at Santa Anita last winter.

The vast majority of people recoil in horror at these fast times, assuming that the horses must be racing on dangerously hard or souped-up surfaces, but that may well be a knee-jerk and illogical conclusion. Fast is not necessarily bad. Why is it safer for the same horse who is capable of running 1:08 on track A to race instead over track B where it takes him 1:12 to cover the same distance?

One could in fact argue that over the faster track, the horse is meeting less resistance and functioning more efficiently. It reminds me of childhood trips to the planetarium where you could step on a scale and see your weight on other planets. A 1,000-pound horse on Earth would weigh only 378 pounds on Mercury and 2,364 pounds on Jupiter. Presumably the horse would run faster on Mercury and it would not be intrinsically less safe than covering the same six panels against the stronger gravity at Jupiter Downs.

A corrolary to this is the widespread belief that track operators routinely and deliberately make their dirt tracks dangerously fast on the days of big events. If the surfaces are in fact groomed to play a bit faster on those days, it is out of the belief that a tighter, quicker track is in fact safer. The alternate explanation, that they do so solely to produce fast times for public consumption, simply makes no sense.

There is no plausible case that faster times and track records lead to higher attendance or handle, or that slower times affect anyone's enthusiasm for good horses. (Did it diminish Sunday Silence's and Easy Goer's appeal that their 1989 Derby was the slowest in 41 years?) The idea that sinister track operators are dangerously quickening their tracks in the name of publicity makes for an inflammatory story but is illogical, especially amid the current atmosphere of high-profile breakdowns in major events.

These are obviously trying times for the sport, and it is being bombarded with suggestions from both thoughtful and thoughtless people, who assume that there are quick and easy fixes like slowing down tracks and racing horses even less often than we already do. It ain't necessarily so.