COLUMBIA — It’s been a thoroughbred racing season of extreme ups and downs: Big Brown’s overwhelming victories in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, Eight Belles’ breakdown in the Derby, and the bitter finale — Big Brown’s rout in the Belmont Stakes.
Though this season’s been tumultuous, injuries and breakdowns have always been a part of thoroughbred racing. The number of injuries has actually gone down, said Dr. Jim Morehead, alumnus of the MU College of Veterinary Medicine and resident veterinarian at Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Ky., where Eight Belles was born.
The public has a general misconception about racing, he said. What people see on TV is what they remember, and announcers usually don’t understand the industry well enough to do justice to the sport.
Morehead says there have been great strides in the safety of race horses, including the development of synthetic tracks. The controversial practice of racing 2-year-old horses has also changed somewhat. Jockey Club statistics show that the number of races that allow 2-year-olds, along with the number of 2-year-olds that participate in these races, has decreased since 1988. The total number of races has also been reduced since 1988.
But Morehead doesn’t deny there are problems in the industry.
While “old-time trainers” may send horses to their home stables for breaks during the racing season, some trainers will race horses year-round, he said. “Because of the cost of maintaining race horses and buying yearlings, owners want them to race.”
Horses are relatively delicate with a large muscle mass to begin with, and when the muscle mass is stressed, bones can break, said Dr. David Wilson, professor of equine surgery at MU.
Wilson, one of the MU vets who treat thoroughbreds brought from Fairmount Park, Ill., to MU, said: “I’ve seen horses just trotting across the pasture and break a leg. Sure, people can blame racing because the horses are pushed to the max, but they are doing a job they love.”
That job is racing — a job they’re bred to perform. It’s something they want to do, Morehead said. Just watch thoroughbreds in a field running for the fun of it, starting when they’re colts and fillies.
But they’re also bred for their ability to withstand racing, Wilson said. The horses that break down on the track aren’t as likely to reproduce, and that takes them out of the gene pool.
Still, the risk of a breakdown remains. Eight Belles was one of these well-publicized breakdowns this season. She broke both ankles after finishing second in the Kentucky Derby.
“I’ve seen things in the press suggesting the jockey and trainer made mistakes,,” said Morehead, who foaled — or delivered — Eight Belles. “They didn’t. It’s part of the risk. It was a freak accident.”
He pointed out that the University of Kentucky diagnostic laboratory did a hecropsy, also known as a post mortem, and found nothing amiss.
As for the dangers of steroid use in horse racing, Morehead said they’re not all the same and have a different effect on horses than on humans.
There are two main types: corticosteroids and anabolic steroids.
Corticosteroids are an anti-inflammatory and are what humans take for poison ivy. They are used on horses when needed either systemically or in the joints. Their use isn’t regulated.
Anabolic steroids have been at the center of the steroid scandal of recent years for their use by human athletes. They’ve been banned for use by humans, and a similar ban may go in effect next year in equine athletes. Morehead said a possible ban was being debated before the drama of this year.
Their use in horses was probably more prevalent 20 years ago because they were more available, Wilson said. Now that their use has become known to the general public, they may be used less because of the negative connotations.
“The public perceives that anabolic steroids are an issue because of human athletes,” Morehead said. “So the industry, in an effort to try to have the public confidence, has adopted rules to eliminate anabolic steroids.”
Whether anabolic steroids have an effect on the performance of race horses is largely unknown, Wilson said. The steroids are used on horses because they make them feel and eat better, Morehead said.
“The reputation of horse racing has suffered in the last several years due to breakdowns and the use of anabolic steroids,” Wilson said. “And for the industry to thrive, they are going to have to address those issues.”