This was no isolated occurrence in the Breeders' Cup. Since the event's inaugural running in 1984, there has been an injury, breakdown or fatality in virtually every Cup renewal. Last year Mr Brooks broke down turning for home in the Breeders" Cup Sprint, dashing English riding legend Lester Piggott into the upper stretch; and while Piggott survived, with minor injuries, the horse had to be destroyed. And this spring, with the sport increasingly under attack from animal rights groups, Union City never even made it to the far turn at Pimlico, again focusing public attention on the issue of death on the racetrack. And no sooner had that unseemly mess subsided than Prairie Bayou, the Preakness winner himself, was galloping quietly down the backstretch in the Belmont Stakes when he broke down so completely that his left foreleg was a ruin—a broken cannon bone, a ruptured suspensory ligament and fractured sesamoid in his ankle, and a pastern bone so devastated, as an autopsy would reveal, that it looked like a building shattered by an earthquake.
All levels of the racing business—breeders, owners, trainers and, particularly, veterinarians and equine scientists—are still feeling the aftershocks of Prairie Bayou's death. The fatality caused a huge public outcry, and the results of the horse's autopsy promise to put racing further on the defensive and give new leverage to those convinced that drugs are destroying the game (box, page 82). The little gelding's death has focused debate more than ever on the causes of racetrack breakdowns and on what, if anything, can be done to prevent them. And on how to treat them once they do occur, short of emptying the syringe into the jugular.
"It is urgent," says breeder Arthur Hancock III, who raised two Kentucky Derby winners, Gato Del Sol and Sunday Silence. "When you see Lester Piggott, one of the world's greatest jockeys, going down in the Breeders' Cup and lying there motionless, it puts the fear of God into you. We can't stand too much of that anymore. You get to the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. No pun intended."
No one can say with precision why so many horses break down on the racetrack. The reasons advanced range from improper shoeing to undetected stress fractures, from the proverbial "bad step" to the escalating use of painkillers. And there are those who strongly suggest that horses are being inbred too closely or raised too softly. In any case there is one point on which many horsemen do agree: The American thoroughbred is not as tough and sturdy as he used to be. He's a far more fragile animal than the raw-boned beasts of yore. Consider such old-fashioned stars as the 1918 Kentucky Derby winner, Exterminator, who won 50 of 100 races; or Discovery, who won 27 of 63 and carried as much as 143 pounds; or Citation, who won 19 of 20 races in 1948, tossing in the Triple Crown along the way.
There have been modern-day exceptions, of course, including the great geldings Forego (won 34 of 57 starts) and John Henry (won 39 of 83 starts), but they were athletes rare among their pampered peers. Young horsemen like trainer Shug McGaughey (whose five stakes wins at Belmont Park on Oct. 16 represent the most notable training feat of the decade) look upon the records of past thoroughbreds with something close to awe. "I've read in books about the training schedules of horses who ran from the 1930s through the middle of the 1960s, and there is no way these horses today could take that," McGaughey says. "I mean, running them in the Derby Trial at a mile on Tuesday, blowing 'em out a mile two days later, on Thursday, and then running 'em back in the Kentucky Derby on Saturday! Those long, hard mile works they used to do, most of the horses couldn't take that today—not only physically but mentally, too. With them being more inbred, we've weakened the race, and the more fragile they're gonna be."
One of the most remarkable changes that has occurred in racing over the last 30 years, outside the advent of the use of corticosteroids, is the rise of the commercial yearling market and the breeding of horses solely for the marketplace. Back in the old days, when the Whitneys and the Guggenheims and the Vanderbilts ruled the game, they looked beyond mere pedigree in breeding horses and actively sought to produce the soundest as well as the fastest horse, mating stallions to marcs with the view toward canceling out each other's physical defects. As these families' influence diminished from racing, the commercial breeders bought their mares and took to breeding them not for stoutness nor soundness but for how the mating looked on paper. Hall of Fame trainer John Nerud says that the game today is suffering the consequences of this vast myopia. "They didn't pay attention to the soundness of horses," Nerud says. "And why should they? They didn't breed to race. They bred for the sales catalog, hoping they would interest the Europeans and Arabs for a $13 million price."
On top of that, says trainer P.G. Johnson, the many horses raised for the sales ring are far softer than those raised by the breeder to race. Those who bred their horses to run would turn out their yearling herds in great fields and, from the time they were weaned until they were broken under tack, the young horses would spend months fighting and playing and bloodying each other's noses. "The horses got tough," Johnson says. "Tough and competitive. They roughhoused it. When we started to get more horses sold at yearling sales, they got softer. In April the sales breeder takes them out of the fields and separates the colts in individual pens. There's a softening that goes on. They don't want them coming into the sales ring all scratched and cut up from running loose and kicking each other. They want them to look like show horses. They want them fatter. And they just aren't as tough. We're not breeding a softer horse, but we're raising one."
And, in many cases, sending them out on the track with dangerous infirmities masked by narcotics and painkillers. "I've been on the racetrack since 1972, and I think drug abuse on the backside is more rampant than it ever was," says Ferraro, the California vet. "With the Ruffian breakdown in 75, the sympathies generated within the industry gave an immediate impetus to protecting horses from breakdowns. From 1976 through 1986 we came a long way. People were making an effort to protect horses, like building the hospitals at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park." And then the recession struck, along with the tax-law changes that removed horses from the roster of depreciable assets, and money grew as tight as the blue jeans on the backstretch. The biggest money-earner of all at the track, the noble running horse, became the asset most expendable—another piece of inventory to be turned over and over in the increasingly furious human scramble to survive.
"From 1989 to the present, it has gotten worse," says Ferraro, whose racetrack practice is now limited to surgery and treating the sick. "This isn't going to make me very popular, but racing should be held accountable for this. I had the biggest practice and the best stables. I could see what was happening and where it was going, and I said, 'I'm getting out. I've had enough.' It makes me sick.... There's a lot of pressure involved. The horse owner is pressing the trainer to win at any cost. The trainer's trying to do everything he can. The veterinarian's the only one who has the knowledge, and should have the judgment, to say, 'This is enough. Don't go any further. We're crossing the line with this animal.' He's got to have enough gumption to stand up and say, 'No!' But they don't. They're under economic pressure themselves.... You've got people who have one or two horses, more than they can afford, and you have owners coming up with the drugs themselves and saying, 'Hey, my physician told me about this. You should try this.' The problem is now, for every guy [veterinarian] that stands up and says no, there's three other guys that'll say, 'I'll do it for ya.' I feel sorry for the young vet that comes on now, because he's almost obligated to cheat if he wants to earn a living. I don't see how he can withstand the pressure."
After 21 years of experience working the Southern California racetracks, Ferraro sees an unmistakable link between many catastrophic breakdowns and the abuse of drugs. Asked how many were related to the masking of pain with drugs, legally or otherwise, Ferraro said, "More than half."