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Barbaro's injury was unfortunate and disappointing but let's keep it in perspective

By Seth Merrow

It was unfortunate and disappointing. But was it a "horror", "racing's darkest moment since July 6, 1975" or, possibly "too much for racing to overcome"?

Those were just a few of the overwrought comments that came from the pundits during the first few days of coverage of Barbaro's Preakness injury.

Certainly it's undeniable that the connections of the horse could legitimately be expected to feel the strongest of emotions after watching their Kentucky Derby winner hobble to a halt after only a few hundred yards of Saturday's big race. But the reactions from many in the racing community, from fans to those pundits referred to above and many more, have been surprising. Has it been appropriate?

Perhaps from my use of the adjective above -- "overwrought" -- you can surmise that I contend the reaction has not been appropriate.

From one corner of "fandom" a negative reaction was not totally unexpected. We here at equidaily.com think that the internet and horse-racing go together like peanut butter and jelly. But there is a flip-side: The rise of the "spurt". A spurt is a so-called racing fan that likes to put a hurt on the sport whenever possible. Whether through ignorance or self-righteousness. Intentionally or unintentionally. And internet horse-racing fan forums have provided the spurts a place to "spurt-off" and find positive reinforcement from kindred thinkers.

To spurts every racetrack mishap was preventable -- if only those in charge had seen the obvious, which is so crystal-clear to the spurts. Often only minutes after a racetrack accident spurts hit the forums decrying the fact that that particular horse shouldn't have been running. He was too young. He was too old. He worked too fast. He didn't work enough. He laid off too long. He came back too soon. Etc etc etc.

The connections who work with these horses everyday are too callous, too greedy, to see what is so clear to the spurts. Of course typically, while the connections tend to the horse in a hands-on manner day-in and day-out, the crystal ball of the spurts works through the simulcast TV signal, or sometimes, seeing the horse at all doesn't seem necessary, the spurts can divine trouble simply by reading the past performances.

So bizarre claims and outlandish accusations on the internet fan forums after the Preakness could have been anticipated.

But what was truly disappointing was the (over-)reaction of fans and pundits from which we might have expected a more reasoned response. The Washington Post's Andy Beyer, perhaps racing's most recognizable public voice, wrote, "A day that began full of optimism and excitement turned into Thoroughbred racing's darkest moment since July 6, 1975."

Powerful stuff -- but, maybe it needs a qualifier, after all, it was only last November that a 16YO apprentice was killed during a race in Ohio. I'm ranking that as a much, much darker moment. I think Mr Beyer probably would as well.

However, it might be argued that by making comparisons to Ruffian Mr Beyer was qualifying his statement and he was speaking in the context of public attention on big events and PR for the sport. He added later in the article, "For a sport that struggles to attract new fans and retain its old ones, the events at Pimlico could not have been more devastating. Those of us who remember Ruffian know how such a calamity can affect the national psyche."

But again, is it a reasoned approach for racing pundits (and Beyer wasn't the only one) to compare what happened in the Preakness to Ruffian's match-race? That race was over thirty years ago. It can legitimately be argued that the public attention and hype given to it was unlike anything surrounding a Triple Crown race. This "boy vs girl" match race came only a couple of years after the Billie Jean King vs Bobby Riggs tennis match. It was in the thick of the "women's lib" movement.

In fact, wasn't the mishap at the Preakness much more like the 1999 Belmont Stakes when Charismatic lost a bid for the Triple Crown, breaking down just short of the finish line? Charismatic's jockey pulled him up quickly and jumped off to calm the horse. And because of medical advances made since the time of Ruffian, Charismatic was saved.

If we're really worried about the affect Barbaro's injury will have on attempting to "attract new fans and retain its old ones" isn't it incumbent upon those of us who write about the sport, talk about the sport, and love the sport, to present that comparison from a Triple Crown race seven years past -- rather than a match-race three decades ago? At the very least, offer up both examples.

But I'm not picking on Andy Beyer. His reaction was mirrored by many. Baltimore Sun sports columnist David Steele made the comment noted at the beginning of this piece, "The negative perceptions that arose from this incident are showing signs of being too much for racing to overcome." He added, "But, one could [ask], is it too early to say the last rites over a sport with such a long, rich history?... Not from the sound of those most closely tied to it."

In other words, it was the perception of Mr Steele, a general-interest sports columnist, that the people who should be expected to give strong support to the sport were wavering. And why wouldn't that be the perception?

Retired jockey turned TV commentator Gary Stevens was interviewed by the NY Times: He criticized NBC for showing too many replays of Barbaro's breakdown. "It reminded me of when they showed Joe Theismann break his leg on 'Monday Night Football,' " he said. "It was grotesque." When asked if he was repulsed at a lengthy shot of Barbaro raising and lowering his broken ankle, Stevens said angrily: "You saw it. Don't make me be graphic."

An interview with Bob Neumeier in the Houston Chronicle offered this: Neumeier played golf Sunday with Joe Bellino, the former Heisman Trophy winner for Navy, who said he began weeping when he saw Barbaro's injury and had to turn off his television.

Granted, everyone has their own emotional trigger-points, but I've gone back and re-watched the NBC coverage and it's hard to objectively describe it as "grotesque", "graphic", or enough to make a grown man cry.

Remember, jockey Edgar Prado did a marvelous job of saving his horse, himself, and the other riders and horses. Another accident that has often been brought up in comparison over the past week is the Go For Wand breakdown in 1990 BC Distaff. But in that event, Go For Wand fell, dumped her jockey, got up and ran off on her injured leg.

There is no minimizing what happened to Barbaro -- but if we're to comment on the TV coverage, and speculate on how it appeared to the "casual fan", it was bloodless and without gore. The three replays (I counted) of the incident were actually more informative as to how Prado did an excellent job reacting (as well as Alex Solis on Brother Derek), than demonstrative of the injury itself.

And post-race shots of Barbaro raising and lowering the leg really seemed to indicate that the horse was favoring the foot but didn't offer up a graphic look at a broken body part. At least not for those "casual fans". Because the break was at the ankle, it was difficult to see anything out of the ordinary -- other than, again, the horse favoring the foot.

Finally, many fans and writers have offered up knee-jerk responses to the happenings of last Saturday.

Many fans had the same opinion as expressed by writer Jay Cronley: "It might be a decent idea to make it a rule to scratch any horse busting through a gate." First, I know of no correlation -- scientifically or anecdotally -- that a break-through and re-load increases the chances of a breakdown. Second, while there's almost a consensus among bettors that horses which false-start tend to run poorly -- remember, most horses lose, so it follows that most horses that re-load will lose.

Before we make a sweeping rules change in this area let's take an informed look at how horses perform after a re-load, and whether or not they actually run significantly worse than their odds.

The Lexington Herald-Leader's John Clay wants to "Appoint a commission. Launch an investigation. Allocate dollars toward research and development." He's upset that racing isn't as forward thinking about safety as NASCAR.

I'd invite Mr Clay to watch the 6th race from Keeneland on April 28th. That was the race where apprentice Julien Leparoux was thrown from his mount and bounced off the safety rail into the infield. Watching the replay it's not hard to believe that the innovation of the safety rail saved Leparoux from serious injury -- if not worse. Also, all jockeys now wear flak vests. And in Australia they're experimenting with a new helmet that covers the face, like a downhill skier.

Safety changes are being made -- but Mr Clay contends that the "safety spotlight has turned to advances in the racing surface itself." And he's not alone in his call for racing venues to head in the direction of the new synthetic surface. Ellis Henican of Newsday wrote, "If you want to improve the safety of horse racing, you really should know about Polytrack."

But the fact is, many of us who have followed the game for awhile are already bewildered by the fast-track that Polytrack is on. The recent Turfway meet was the first complete race-meet run in this country over a Polytrack surface. Clearly the early results are encouraging with the numbers of injuries to horses down.

By long-time race-watchers are aware that numbers at one race-meet can change dramatically when the calendar page turns and races are held at the same venue the next year. So were the Turfway numbers for real -- or an aberration?

Or does it matter? Perhaps the numbers were so encouraging we should rush ahead and push tracks to change to the synthetic surface. But as Stan Bergstein noted in the Daily Racing Form, we've been down this road before, "Those who overlook history may be forced to relive it, and there is a history to synthetic tracks that is being overlooked." He goes on to tell the story of the synthetic Tartan racing surface that appeared in the '60's. According to Bergstein it was hailed for its "uniformity and a friendly and less punishing surface for horses."

But eventually the daily grind of racing took its toll on the Tartan surface and the tracks that had installed it were forced to remove it.

In 1988 Remington Park opened and was using a synthetic surface known as Equitrack. By 1991 they had switched back to a conventional dirt surface after horsemen complained the synthetic material was melting in Oklahoma's summer heat.

And Polytrack itself has some quirks. According to Turfway's president, "The enzymes in the manure would eat into the wax, breaking it down. We have a guy in the most expensive pooper picker-upper on the planet, a $16,000 little truck running around picking it up."

So it seems prudent to let Polytrack play out over the course of a few seasons at a few venues before we jump on that bandwagon -- and perhaps find that a mistake was made.

And the last of the knee-jerk reactions has been the call for a change in the Triple Crown schedule. There were a number of articles on the subject but Dick Jerardi's was perhaps the most drastic -- calling not only for a schedule change, but also a cutback in the distance of the Belmont Stakes. But almost all of those that agreed with Jerardi's schedule change idea also noted the same reasoning, "American breeders did not consider the long-term effects of speed over speed. What was fairly obvious in the 1990s is impossible to ignore in the 2000s. The American race horse is the most fragile it has ever been."

Hey folks, if the breed has changed so much over the past 25-30 years -- then changing the Triple Crown schedule is the least of our worries!

It's been a tough week for the racing game. But part of the blame for that lies with the Chicken Little attitude that has cast a shadow over the coverage of events the past seven days. When the going gets tough -- it's up to us to try to focus on the positive.

That does not mean sticking our heads into the sand and ignoring the problems that face racing in the 21st century. It simply means that we need to recognize the subjects that make for legitimate discussion and debate -- and, hopefully, action -- and not engage in overwrought reflections and knee-jerk reactions.

Let's move forward in a reasonable and responsible way and do everything we can to bring those "new" and "casual" fans along with us...

[Happily it should be noted that by mid-week there was some amount of moderation:
Brunker: Horse racing still great despite tragedies
Neumeier: Don't overreact to Barbaro's injury
Ettkin: Don't tell me Barbaro's calamity might ruin the sport]


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