NYRA Board scratches surface

The new NYRA Board will discuss a surface change at Aqueduct. NYRA/Adam Coglianese

The average thoroughbred is made from at least a half-ton of muscle, sinew and bone, trained to a fine degree of fitness that permits the optimal use of inherent speed that can, over a short span of ground, reach 40 miles per hour and routinely surpasses 30 during the course of a race. In full stride, one hoof at a time impacts the ground. An ankle and knees no larger than those of a human absorb tremendous concussion. The hind legs propel forward a prodigious mass of weight. The unflawed thoroughbred stride is a thing of beauty, a furious though punishing ballet.

A racehorse is as fragile as it is soul-stirring. Every stride may be the last. Routine training can become catastrophe in an instant. Racing is dangerous, a fact constantly in the minds of everyone who had watched a field of horses loaded into a starting gate. A thoroughbred faces death at every moment of his life, but vastly more so when training and racing.

Barring a suspension of the basic laws of physics, racing will result occasionally in serious injury and, since these animals do not generally abide the process of healing after such mishap, death to horses by euthanasia. Memorable, accomplished champions -- Ruffian, Go For Wand, Barbaro and others -- have suffered ultimately fatal injuries in competition on the sport's most important stages. So have too many lesser horses to count in races run without fanfare at major racetracks and backwater bullrings. This is part of the game -- the gut-wrenching invasion of tragedy -- that is grudgingly accepted by its practitioners. Racing without inevitable tragedy is impossible.

Inevitability does nothing to lessen the emotional impact of watching a horse suffer in the minutes between serious injury and fatal injection. The blue screen used to shield the public from a horse's last moments of life does nothing to lessen the impact or salve the ire of animal rights activists.

It is the moral responsibility of those who operate racetracks to maintain conditions and racing surfaces that do not place horses in greater danger than is inherent to the sport. Most do so successfully and there is no tolerance for anything less.

Horsemen and jockeys are the least tolerant of conditions that imperil the horse and despite a rash of fatal injuries at Aqueduct last year, none of the human participant pointed to the winter racing surface as being dangerous. Studies undertaken at the behest of state government revealed no evidence of an unsafe surface. With the two lowest claiming levels, which produced the majority of fatal breakdowns last year, eliminated, five horses have been euthanized because of injuries suffered since Dec. 12, when racing at Aqueduct returned to the winterized inner track, not an inordinate number.

Yet the fledgling New York Racing Association Reorganization Board, according to a press release issued last week, will at its next meeting consider replacing the surface of the inner track, which has performed remarkably well since the mid 1970s, with a synthetic surface. It will also consider other changes, including a reduction in the number of racing days and the number of races run -- a suggestion that this is not an entirely unreasonable group -- but installing a synthetic winter surface at Aqueduct should be dismissed as quickly as is seems to have surfaced. A lesson in the basic physics of the thoroughbred stride and its skeletal impact may be in order before the next assembly of this group.

NYRA is coping with several issues at the moment. It has been unsuccessful in retaining a suitable chief executive or general manager and continues rudderless operation. A welcome tightening of the state's medication rules has resulted in an 80 percent decline in the number of shippers, leaving Aqueduct with often unappealing, small fields. But the winter racing surface is not a problem and there is no support or justification for a change so radical and expensive.

Public spaces at Aqueduct and Belmont, long in neglected decline, are in need of renovation. Backstretch living facilities at all three tracks operated by NYRA are sorely in need of upgrade. Spending millions on an unnecessary project with no upside or support -- another example, perhaps, of the state's recent trend toward knee-jerk government -- is indefensible.

Most of those serving on this board are political appointees but, hopefully, those who actually have a clue will explain the shaky history of synthetic surfaces and the lack of convincing evidence that they are effective in the prevention of injury especially in often sub-freezing winter temperatures.

No doubt, there is much work to be done in New York. There is, however, great merit to not fixing those things yet unbroken.

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 pmoran1686@aol.com.