The headline reads “The Breaking Point,” followed by the statement: “A rising toll of racetrack breakdowns has shaken public confidence and put the Thoroughbred industry at a crossroads.”
The article speaks of the apparent fragility of the modern Thoroughbred and the increasing reliance on corticosteroids and other therapeutic medications in the American racehorse and whether or not those factors are leading toward more and more fatal injuries in racing and training.
It is from the Nov. 1, 1993, issue of Sports Illustrated.
The author was the late William Nack, a seven-time Eclipse Award-winning writer who once ran across the vast Belmont Park infield to be an eyewitness to history after the great Ruffian broke down in her 1975 match race against Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure.
Nack was widely castigated by Thoroughbred industry insiders for that 1993 article, for poking his nose where they said it didn't belong. “These are our horses,” they told him. “It's not yours or anyone else's business.”
That still seems to be the attitude with too many people in this industry.
More than 25 years after Nack's critical Sports Illustrated article, the industry is at another crossroads, but the choices on which direction to take are coming into better focus: one road leads toward national reforms for Thoroughbred racing; the other toward likely extinction.
We've written before about how society has changed, that a public opinion survey in 2018 made animal welfare the No. 1 issue that Americans care the most about. That was before the glare from the mainstream media spotlight on racing fatalities at Santa Anita in Arcadia, Calif., made virtually everyone in this country aware that hundreds of Thoroughbreds are dying each year on American racetracks.
The media smells blood, and I'm sure you've heard the expression that “if it bleeds, it leads.” The piling on is unfair, with graphic and often misleading articles and video segments on horse racing fatalities on everything from Voice of America and National Public Radio to CNN, Fox News and HuffPost.com (which referred to Santa Anita as “horse hell”). Who ever said life was fair?
It's not just Santa Anita. Both the Louisville Courier-Journal and Lexington Herald-Leader – deep in the heart of Kentucky's Thoroughbred country – have begun covering racing fatalities with the same fervor usually saved for college basketball recruits.
And now the latest.
Last Saturday afternoon at Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, Texas, in a $7,500 claiming race, Texas-bred 3-year-old gelding Moro Chief, racing on the lead as the 11-10 favorite for trainer Joe Sharp, went down in a gruesome spill approaching the sixteenth pole, throwing jockey Lindey Wade. A trailing horse, D W Washburn, stumbled over Moro Chief and his jockey, Iram Diego, also fell.
Neither jockey was injured, but Moro Chief wasn't as lucky.
Fans who attended Lone Star that afternoon and saw Moro Chief being taken off the track in the horse ambulance began asking questions on the racetrack's Facebook page. One of them said inquiries about the incident were being deleted. Two days later, after the questioning intensified, Lone Star Park confirmed on Facebook that Moro Chief had been euthanized.
“Regrettably, the nature of Moro Chief's injuries gave the attending veterinarians no other choice but to euthanize him,” the Lone Star statement read. “By use of the necropsy report, State veterinarians will determine if the horse may have had any pre-existing injury which went undetected in the pre-race examinations. All horses at Lone Star Park are observed by state veterinarians every time they set foot on the track, whether it be for morning training or for racing. Horses showing any kind of soundness problems are not allowed to enter or race.
“The safety of our equine and human athletes is our number one priority. Over the years we have had a very good safety record, but any accident is thoroughly investigated to make sure there are no issues with our racing surfaces or our safety protocols.”
That night, the Dallas ABC television affiliate, WFAA, posted an article on its website about Moro Chief's death. Within the article was a video commentary taped in March about the Santa Anita crisis by WFAA anchor Mike Leslie, an admitted racing fan who grew up minutes from Saratoga racetrack in upstate New York. Leslie raised questions about the future of the sport and whether or not he can defend it any longer.
On Tuesday, the website for the Dallas Morning News ran its own article about Moro Chief, the headline reading: “Fans Demand Answers After Horse Falls During Race, Is Euthanized At Lone Star Park In Grand Prairie.”
This wasn't Ruffian or the 29th fatality at Santa Anita, where local and national media have been on a death watch since March. It was a $7,500 claiming horse on a Saturday afternoon, a tragedy that would have gone unnoticed by the Dallas media in any other year. This isn't any other year.
Racing is on notice. The general public is watching more closely, asking questions and demanding answers. The news media is measuring the number of clicks that stories about dead horses are attracting to their websites; they're not done. This is a very real crisis, the likes of which this sport has never seen before.
Those who resist meaningful reform, who insist that the status quo of self-regulation can solve this problem, they're the same ones who in 1993 chastised William Nack to mind his own business. As Stuart S. Janney III, chairman of The Jockey Club, recently told HBO's “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel,” these are the people who “are putting the very survival of the sport at risk.”
They will have as their epitaph: “Helped kill horse racing.”
That's my view from the eighth pole.
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