Things observed during a single quarter horse race meeting at Pompano Park in south Florida during the late 1970s:
A trainer walked into the saddling paddock with a syringe clearly visible in his shirt pocket.
An owner, searched at the stable gate during a sweep of the backstretch by state investigators, with several syringes hidden in her boot, each wrapped in a napkin on which the name of the intended recipient animal was written.
Bettors who attempted to deal with the challenge posed by [quarter horse racing's] unabashed drug culture soon abandoned the sport
A trainer, who often ponied his horses to the post, apparently administered an injection during a warm-up minutes before the start of a race, then disposed of a small object (a syringe?) by throwing it over the fence. The horse won.
Anything went in quarter horse racing in those days. Apparently nothing has changed according to a recent loosely reported 6,000-plus-word initial report that launched a New York Times series. The pieces have incited vows of reform in the quarter horse world and shaken thoroughbred racing's most-hallowed Manhattan halls.
In those days, a highly illegal and apparently amazingly potent substance commonly called "elephant juice" was the drug of choice. Since the point of quarter horse racing is to run flat out over a short distance, usually no more than 440 yards, anything that translates to a length or a head could be the difference between first and out of the money -- drag racing with animals -- was an explosive edge.
Bettors who attempted to deal with the challenge posed by the sport's unabashed drug culture soon abandoned the sport and attempts to popularize quarter horse racing in the East were abandoned long ago after a meeting at a Long Island track called Suffolk Meadows failed in the mid-1980s. It remains popular at small racetracks in the Southwest, however, and Times reporters with a bit more historical background would have concluded that the sport and body count remain essentially unchanged over the years -- deeply rooted in a sinister status quo rather than the exposure of recent trend. Quarter horse racing occupies its own sphere and always has.
The in-progress Times series focused a great deal of initial attention upon Ruidoso Downs and Zia Park, both in New Mexico and centers of quarter horse racing, and it drew startling conclusions based upon flawed interpretation of data that combined two completely different forms of racing. But painting quarter horse and thoroughbred racing with the same brush inevitably results in invalid data.
These are different equine breeds, forms of racing with divergent focus and enterprises with vastly different cultures.
Thoroughbred racing has its problems. Too many horses suffer injuries while racing or training. Too many of those injuries result in euthanasia. But data compiled in a Jockey Club-sponsored study conducted over a three-year period show a fatality rate of fewer than two horses per 1,000 starts. That figure, while too high, balloons to more than five per 1,000 with the invalid addition of quarter horse "body-count" data. And what the Times refers to as "signs of injury" are subjectively gleaned from chart footnotes and are at best nebulous. Horses die in races from things other than skeletal injury. Not every horse pulled up in a race is sentenced to death. Accidents happen. Heart attack is not uncommon. The conclusion that horses, having left the course during steeplechase races, were injured, dams the data.
The Times, if not originally encouraged by animal-rights zealots, has certainly invigorated the beast
Nor is there delineation in the focus of the two forms of racing taken into consideration. The most important quarter horse races are limited to 2-year-olds who are asked to run short a distance at full speed from a standing start, resulting in maximum stress on bones, joints and connective tissue. Contenders are eliminated in trial races no less grueling than the ultimate objectives. These horses, in human terms of age, are prepubescent and skeletally immature. The sport's focus itself is inhumane. The trend of modern thoroughbred racing has seen 2-year-olds raced more and more sparingly, the major objectives still a year away and beyond. Unlike quarter horse racing, the thoroughbred sport rewards longevity with important races for aged horses.
The Times, if not originally encouraged by animal-rights zealots, has certainly invigorated the beast, which has been a thorn in the side of the thoroughbred sport since the death of filly Eight Belles following the 2008 Kentucky Derby. Eight Belles' injuries -- fractures of both front ankles -- were never explained, but no animal on the face of the earth receives treatment more attentive than a horse of her caliber.
Tragic mishap in racing spares no level of talent. The immortal filly Ruffian suffered a fatal injury at Belmont Park in a 1975 match race with Foolish Pleasure that still haunts history. The champion filly Go For Wand died on the racetrack, also at Belmont, after suffering a broken leg in the 1990 Breeders' Cup. Injuries resulting in euthanasia, will never be entirely eliminated from racing and sometimes -- as is the case in the wake of a spate of fatalities in races run over the inner track at Aqueduct this winter -- defy certain explanation.
Trainers and jockeys are first to cite a dangerous surface, but there was no complaint about the footing on the inner track during a snowless winter marked by remarkably mild weather. Extremely large casino-fueled purses offered at the lowest claiming levels at which the overwhelming majority competed, and an unprecedented number of claims may have played a role as horsemen chose to run less-than-sound animals and economic opportunity took precedence over prudent management. Nineteen horses were fatally injured in a span of 3½ months. All passed prerace veterinary inspection.
Horse racing has always been extremely dangerous for animal and rider, an endeavor that wraps every moment of triumphant euphoria in months of despair. As was once pointed out by a Hall of Fame trainer: "They don't play this game in short pants."
Yet, this has become a nation in short pants.
State regulators, prompted by a concerned missive issued by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, have appointed a panel to study the rash of breakdowns at Aqueduct, but there is no optimism that its work will result in definitive conclusion. The New York Racing Association has reduced purses at the lowest claiming levels and eliminated the bottom rung. Fewer opportunities for such horses will, some believe, alleviate the problem as the population of horses increases in quality to meet the current level of purses. That would eliminate the lowest ranks of claiming horse. The Jockey Club recently issued a statement encouraging the elimination of race-day medications, including the never unanticipated pie-in-the-sky call to eliminate the almost universally employed anti-bleeding diuretic Lasix.
Injuries resulting in euthanasia have increased in recent years. Without an authoritative governing body, no amount of research will go beyond identification of symptoms and isolate the cause -- if that is indeed possible. The industry's inability to deal effectively with both its problems and image -- or at least create the impression of doing so -- may inevitably lead to realization of its own worst nightmare: federal regulation.
Hopefully, for the sake of quarter horses everywhere, the Times series will inspire an effective reform movement in New Mexico and elsewhere in the bush-track netherworld.
The politically expedient Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) and Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), in the days immediately following the Times' initial reports, have proposed to amend the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978 to prohibit administering performance-enhancing drugs [which are already illegal] on race days to horses in simulcast races. Hundreds of people in the industry, embracing the devil they don't know, have signed a letter advocating federal oversight. This is not unlike playing tag with a poisonous snake.
Beginning with an embrace of reality and the admission that breakdowns will never be eliminated from racing, the more effective path to meaningful reduction of injury may rest in more stringent pre-race veterinary examination and drug testing. This was once the practice in New York but eventually fell victim to penny-wise and pound-foolish state budget cuts. States, particularly those in which casinos have brought prosperity to racing, fail to increase regulatory staff or even address the possibility of preventative measures, pre-race drug testing in particular.
Lacking uniform medication rules, thoughtful approach and a national governing body with interstate regulatory authority, as well as resignation to the reality that individual states will never cede such power, the onus to bring about responsible regulation falls to industry leaders and a state-by-state effort. To this point, that has amounted to herding cats.
Hopefully, for the sake of quarter horses everywhere, the Times series will inspire an effective reform movement in New Mexico and elsewhere in the bush-track netherworld. Despite emboldened animal rights zealots who will inevitably appear waving placards in the streets adjacent to racetracks this year as they have since the spring of 2008, it is unlikely to have meaningful positive and lasting impact in the thoroughbred world. In time, that world inevitably will find itself under the thumb of federal authorities.
The price of decades of inaction will be steep and unpleasant.
Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.