There's trouble in Paradise, a/k/a the Meadowlands racetrack. Since this temple to people's insatiable quest for a no-sweat buck opened 16 months ago in a New Jersey swamp, all manner of betting, racing, attendance and purse records have been set.
But a new and unenviable record also has been established at Meadowlands, where both standardbreds and thoroughbreds race year round: most horses getting sick.
The track denies it. Executive Director Jack Krumpe said, "If there were such a problem, the horsemen would have come to us and told us. They haven't." Then Krumpe quietly dispatched an underling to check the story out. What Krumpe presumably is hearing back is that respiratory maladies—ailments such as coughs, sore throats and breathing problems that keep horses out of races or make them perform poorly—are rampant at the track. While this type of sickness is a growing problem around the country, Meadowlands leads other tracks by open lengths.
For months there has been talk along the backstretch. Veterinarians and trainers say—anonymously or in very low voices—that, for sure, there is a problem. Horsemen are reluctant to knock the goose that has laid racing's largest golden egg, for Meadowlands' reputation for excellence, smart management and largess is unmatched (SI, Sept. 12).
From the day it opened, the East Rutherford track was a winner. In 181 nights of harness racing in 1977, for example, bettors pushed more than $338 million through the windows. Meadowlands became the showpiece of standardbred racing. Across the Hudson, Yonkers and Roosevelt raceways fumed as they were displaced as the ranking harness tracks in the land. Business at Yonkers nosedived so much that there is talk of letting it go to the dogs. Almost as significantly, Meadowlands is just completing a highly successful four-month thoroughbred operation—run at night, contrary to tradition and the wishes of most horsemen. Across the Hudson, Aqueduct and Belmont are uneasy. They have resorted to thousand-dollar giveaways and have hired big bands to keep bettors two-stepping to the windows.
Meadowlands has become so important and so influential that when it sneezes, tracks elsewhere tend to come down with colds. Which may be more fact than hyperbole. On Jan. 18, Meadowlands opens its second harness season, and there is apprehension, for the track can do little about most of the causes of the respiratory ailments that afflict the horses. Part of the problem is the location of the track, part that it offers such big money.
Proof of the Meadowlands malady comes from many sources. Dr. Kenneth P. Seeber, a local veterinarian, says he normally uses his fiberoptic endoscope—a flexible, $5,000 device for looking down horses' throats and around corners—eight to 10 times a week. In 1977 at Meadowlands he used it that many times a day. The view was not pretty. When asked if upper respiratory problems are worse at Meadowlands than anywhere else, another vet, Dr. Jim Mitchell, says, "There's no denying that." Dr. Allan Wise agrees: "Yes, absolutely." Further, says Wise, "If a horse didn't have respiratory problems at, say, Monmouth [another Jersey track], he does here; if he had problems at Monmouth, they are worse here."
A primary theory, and the one favored by many horsemen, is air pollution. Dr. Fred Adams says, "Meadowlands is a victim of its environment." Thoroughbred Trainer Don Combs says, "It's more difficult for a horse to breathe here. That's fact." And this leads to throat problems, including bleeding. One of harness racing's leading figures, Billy Haughton, says, "Sometimes the odor is so bad at Meadowlands you can hardly stand it." Son Peter chimes in, "It's a horrible place for a racetrack, animals and humans."
Horsemen get medical backing on this point. Dr. Jill Beech is an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, the Mayo Clinic for horses. "I'm getting a lot of calls from Meadowlands," she says. "People are saying their horses didn't have respiratory problems elsewhere but they do there. I say, 'You're not the only one,' and they say, 'Right, I know lots of other horses here with the same problems.' " Beech tells horsemen she thinks the air pollution could be the reason and that if their animals are susceptible to respiratory difficulties, they had better take them elsewhere. "But," says Beech, "Meadowlands is where the money is."