The breakdown of wonder horse Barbaro at the Preakness was shocking beyond words to thousands of people in Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course stands and to millions in the television audience. I was not the only one who was reminded of Ruffian, the racing champion who broke her leg in the much-heralded 1975 match race against Foolish Pleasure. Watching Barbaro try to keep running in spite of his broken, dangling leg, I got the same sickening feeling in my stomach as I did 30 years ago when I saw that beautiful bay filly's leg snap.
Here's the real tragedy: The only thing that has changed in the last three decades is that breakdowns of this sort are more likely to happen. Barbaro's terrible injuries, which included fractures of his canon bone, sesamoids and long pastern, as well as dislocation of the fetlock joint, are common enough on today's race courses that anyone not blinded by the quest for glory and profit can see that reforms in training and racing methods are long past due.
Some of racing's more prominent victims include Union City, who was injured in the 1993 Preakness and was destroyed. That same year, Preakness winner Prairie Bayou broke down in the Belmont Stakes. Charismatic, who won the 1999 Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, fractured his ankle in the Belmont.
Countless other lesser-known horses have suffered similar fates, but because they were less famous and didn't break down in front of a national audience, fewer people know about their broken, dangling legs and ultimately their destruction. The excuse from the racing industry is downright boring in its repetitiveness: It's a sad but unavoidable risk of racing.
Nonsense. There are steps that could be taken right now that would spare most of these horses. To begin with, breeders and trainers should admit that they start training too soon. Thoroughbreds shouldn't be trained or raced before their third birthday at the earliest. Before this, they are physically immature and the pounding their legs take lead to catastrophic injuries. The variety of drugs legally given to racehorses to mask the symptoms and reduce swelling and pain of injured legs proves the point.
Next, stop racing them on dirt. Fans like this hard surface because it translates to speed. It also causes injury - the harder the surface the more likely the horse will break down. Turf racing, as is common in Europe, may not be as fast but it is without a doubt safer.
Don't run horses too often. Even Barbaro, who was lightly raced before he romped to an easy victory in the Kentucky Derby, wasn't protected from injury. Those horses who live and race on the smaller tracks are often run so frequently that strains and breaks are inevitable and most horses who break down aren't sent to state-of-the-art equine hospitals, as Barbaro was. Dr. Dean Richardson, the veterinarian who led the surgical team that worked on Barbaro, acknowledged that he's never performed such a complicated surgery because most horses would have been destroyed at the track.
These changes are monumental and would require, at least temporarily, an upheaval of the racing industry. But so what? The alternative is more of the same-ugly breakdowns and death. If the people who make their living on these animals aren't willing to do what's right by them, the public should stay far away from the tracks and betting rooms.