But even if such advanced techniques succeed in warning horsemen of impending disasters by detecting the earliest stress fractures, the racing industry will always be faced with the unavoidable and inevitable accident—the dead-game horse who pushes too hard on the fragile envelope and falls, the horse who gets tangled in traffic while switching leads, the horse who does, in fact, take that bad step. However they go down, injuries of the kind that doomed Go For Wand—ruptured suspensory ligaments and blood vessels and a dislocated ankle—present a daunting medical problem. Horses are born with limited circulation to the lower leg, and when the few blood vessels to the area are gone, there is no delivery system for antibiotics to fight infection or for oxygen to prevent gangrene.
"Repairing is not possible when they do that much soft-tissue damage," Larry Bramlage, a noted Kentucky equine surgeon, says. "That's akin to amputation in people. Our size problems are bigger. They weigh a thousand pounds. The ability to reason with the patient is not there. A horse sleeps standing up, not lying down, and it's impossible to give the injured tissue some relief from bearing weight. The horse has to have four legs to walk on, or the opposite leg becomes overloaded and it starts to fail, bringing on laminitis. All of those things make it very difficult to save them."
But not impossible. Dr. Ric Redden, a prominent Kentucky veterinarian, has kept some horses alive for years by amputating wounded limbs and fitting them with prosthetic devices (box, page 86). And Bramlage is saving horses today who would have had little chance 15 years ago. He has surgically repaired a number of badly injured horses so that they are able to carry on with stud duty, including such popular stallions as Saratoga Six and Noble Dancer, using a procedure that involves fusing the bones in the horse's ankle joint. While the joint is forever fixed and immobile, it is strong enough to allow the horse to stand and bear his weight. Such surgery, he says, might have worked on the kind of injury suffered by Ruffian.
Whatever the encouraging indicators provided by medical research, those signs of progress are of minor import compared with the elephant in racing's living room, around which most everyone steps gingerly in various states of denial: drugs at the track. "I mean, get the drugs out of racing, man," says Ferraro. "The incentive now in racing is to use medication improperly. We've got to make it cost too much to cheat, make the incentive to race clean.... We had an excuse in the '50s and '60s and '70s because we didn't know any better about medication. But we know better now. We don't have an excuse anymore. We know what it does."
The incentive to diminish the incidence of breakdowns will come not only from a beleaguered industry pressured by a public increasingly disillusioned about the treatment of horses, but also from racing's other endangered species, the jockeys. On Feb. 23, 1990, in the sixth race at Tampa Bay Downs, a 27-year-old apprentice jockey named Benny Narvaez was riding a horse named That a Boy Girl on the turn for home when a mare named Dance Appeal, racing in front of him, went down with a fractured leg. Her breakdown triggered a spectacular four-horse spill in which Narvaez, a father of four who had just won his first race the day before, somersaulted over his mount's head when she tried to jump the horse sprawled in front of her. "I went over and onto my back," he recalls. "I hit hard. I knew I was hurt bad right away. I could not feel anything."
Two years later, in a court case that stunned the industry, a jury of five men and a woman awarded Narvaez $4.4 million in damages after finding that the racetrack was solely responsible for Narvaez's crippling injury—he is paralyzed from the chest down—on the grounds that the track veterinarian failed to perform an adequate exam on Dance Appeal before the race. Dance Appeal, trial testimony revealed, had a medical history involving an ankle injury that her trainer had treated with a corticosteroid a few days before the race. Sitting in his living room last week, Narvaez played a tape of the race several times over—"I have watched it maybe 500 times," he says. "There was nothing I could do"—and reflected on the perils that face his fellow riders every day.
"It is a dangerous sport, the most dangerous," he says. "In car racing the drivers have cages and seat belts. In football, equipment. Us, nothing. And we have to depend on the vets and the trainers and tracks to be sure we are racing on and against sound horses. We proved we are not. But, in a big way, it was too late for me. My accident could have been prevented, and so can others."