Today had the promise of history — that is, until the horse I'll Have Another was scratched from the Belmont Stakes. Also scratched: hopes for a long-awaited Triple Crown winner. It was yet another piece of bad news for the horse racing industry, which is under new scrutiny over the safety and treatment of the horses.
Trainer Doug O'Neil held I'll Have Another by the reins before speaking to the media assembled outside Belmont Barn 2 on Friday. This would not be one of those requirement press conferences where the athlete cries and says he'll miss the game. Equine athletes, of course, don't have that capacity. It's their human overseers who must struggle with strategy; the horse's job is just to go fast.
"Though it's far from tragic — no one died or anything like that — but it's extremely disappointing," O'Neil said.
Tragedy, or the absence thereof, was the undercurrent of this decision. Thoroughbred horses are simultaneously wonderfully powerful and terribly fragile. Veteran horsemen all know the names: Barbaro, Eight Belles, Prairie Bayou, Union City, Go For Wand, Mr. Nickerson, Shaker Knitt, George Washington. All were killed on the track — and on national TV — since 1990. But no one really knew the extent of equine fatality until The New York Times published a multi-part series this year.
"Twenty-four deaths a week — and these are deaths on a racetrack," says Joe Drape, who co-authored the series. "Short of hunting and fishing, this could be America's deadliest sport.
The vast majority of horse deaths occur far from the glory of society women in their finery and network television coverage. Quarter horses in New Mexico were a particular focus of the Times series, but so was the issue of race-day medication.
"We have a lot of different states with a lot of different rules and we have a very permissive medication policies compared to other international horse racing authorities," says Jim Gagliano, president of The Jockey Club — kind of like the American Kennel Club, but for horses. Gagliano acknowledges racing needs reform.
The drug Lasix is prescribed to control hemorrhaging in racehorses. It was in widespread use outside of New York for decades. New York legalized it in 1995 but now organizations like The Jockey Club are advocating a ban on Lasix, under the theory that medicated horses push themselves harder than their bodies can handle.
Rick Violette Jr., who has trained top horses and is president of the New York Throughbred Horsemen's Association doesn't just disagree — he throws out the entire premise.
"Lasix is kind of a red herring. It's blamed for everything from breakdowns to the Rainfall in Afghanistan," he says. "Getting rid of Lasix won't address breakdowns one iota."
Europe and Hong Kong don't allow race-day Lasix, and they have much lower rates of deaths. Trainers like Violette dispute the causality, and in fact has broad criticisms of the Times series for leaving the impression that the worst practices of the most unethical trainers are common.
Instead, Violette advocates for different reforms — reforms which The Jockey Club also supports. There are too many days of racing in the U.S. they say, meaning too many unsound horses are entered into races they should be skipping.
There's no central entity that regulates racing. In the NFL, the commissioner metes out punishment. Major League Baseball, too, invented the office of the commissioner to deal with an existential crisis of its own. Without similar damage control, horse racing's reputation is facing its own breakdown. Like boxing or even sub-prime mortgages, Drape says.
"I mean, it's really corrupted itself into near irrelevance," he says.
One celebrity horse wouldn't have changed the state of racing, but a Triple Crown winner would not only have provided a lift, it might have given a dose of self-confidence which could have emboldened the industry toward action.