Two months ago the Humane Society of the United States received at its Washington, D.C. headquarters an anonymous letter from an employee at the Water-ford Park Race Track in Chester, W. Va. It said, in part, "Since they, the management of Waterford Park, have been putting pea gravel on the track instead of sand, we have treated 600 to 1,000 eyes this year for dents, cuts, ulcers and blindness. Today the veterinarian removed the 31st eye of a thoroughbred in 1978."
Field investigator Marc Paulhus, assigned to the case by the society, spent 10 days in West Virginia collecting witnesses' statements and evidence, much of it in clandestine interviews with trainers afraid to speak out for fear the track management would retaliate by denying them stall space.
On the basis of Paulhus' work, the Humane Society and its lawyers decided that the practice of using pea gravel on the track at Waterford Park may well constitute a continuing pattern of violation of the West Virginia anticruelty statutes, and the society threatened to seek prosecution under West Virginia's criminal statutes if the practice were not discontinued.
The owner of Waterford Park is a billion-dollar conglomerate called the Ogden Corporation. The corporation replied to the Humane Society by saying, in essence, that a horse hit in the eye with gravel is better off than one hit in the eye by dirt clods and stones, as happens on other surfaces at other tracks, and that, therefore, "we continue to feel our racing surface is in the best interest of the horse."
Dr. Dean H. Peterson, who was a Waterford Park veterinarian for four years and who removed about three eyes a year while he was there, says, "I think the track conditions are such that they cause more eye injuries than other surfaces would cause. I've heard a lot of trainers talk about boycotting the entry box, but they're too poor. A guy trying to train 10 broken-down horses and having problems getting his owners to pay their bills can't afford to boycott."
John Shryock, a trainer, recently spoke to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S Demmie Stathoplos about racing at Waterford. Digging the toe of his boot into the deep layer of gravel at the rail on the far turn at Waterford Park, he said, "It's awful. I used to train here, but I left and went to New Orleans because of this surface. My daughter's riding in this race here. She's a 16-year-old apprentice jockey. Name's Debbie. She's been riding here one week and she's gone through 21 pairs of goggles. They get all scratched and pitted from the gravel. She comes home with red marks all over her body, her arms and legs, from being hit by the gravel. It's the worst track we've ever been on."
The track's manager, Howard Graham, assessed the efforts of the Humane Society as follows: "I think they're a shyster outfit, and I think they're strictly after publicity, and I don't want to honor them by getting into any debate with them."
Fortunately the debate is already on, and it would seem to be a debate that warrants as much publicity as it can get.
ONLY A GAME