ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

This Saturday, a horse will attempt to do what no horse has done in 30 years - win the Triple Crown. Big Brown has already won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness; still, the story of the year's most important thoroughbred races has not been altogether happy.

(Soundbite of TV broadcast)

Mr. TOM HAMMOND (NBC Sports): But a sad end of the race, Eight Belles, the Philly, ran her heart out; she was second. And here is the equine ambulance pulling up next to Eight Belles...

SIEGEL: At the Kentucky Derby last month, NBC's Tom Hammond looked on after Eight Belles snapped both legs. The horse was given a fatal injection on the track. That followed several other high-profile injuries, most notably Barbaro just two years ago. And now Big Brown, this year's Triple Crown hope, has a crack in his front left hoof.

NPR's Joanne Silberner reports on the health issues which have come to fore this racing season.

JOANNE SILBERNER: The immediate question for this week's race is that crack in Big Brown's hoof called a quarter crack. It's a split in his front left hoof, basically a cracked toenail. Few in the racing industry are worried about it. Veterinarian Larry Bramlage was with Eight Belles after the Kentucky Derby. He says untreated quarter cracks can be painful, but they don't lead to broken bones or catastrophic problems.

Dr. LARRY BRAMLAGE (Equine Surgeon): Quarter cracks don't tend to do that. Its only concern is its effect on performance.

SILBERNER: Big Brown's handlers have basically stapled his hoofs together and plan to glue on a patch on Friday. Bramlage is confident enough that he bet on the horse, right now the odds-on favorite if the pay-off weren't likely to be so low.

Ed Bowen also isn't worried. He's president of a foundation for research on horse health supported by the racing industry.

Mr. ED BOWENS (Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation): The ability to deal and manage quarter cracks and keep going is not something that is radical or new or anything like that.

SILBERNER: Forty-five years ago a horse named Northern Dancer developed a quarter crack like Big Brown on his front left hoof. As it healed, he trained on it, and he raced on it. He went on to win the Kentucky Derby and many other races. And he became one of the most successful sires in thoroughbred history.

In fact, he's great-grandfather of Big Brown on both sides, which brings us to the second hot equine health issue: genetics. Are breeders breeding in undesirable traits like that not-so-serious tendency to develop quarter cracks, or the very serious tendency to break legs?

Veterinarian Doug Antczak is with the College of Veterinary Medicine of Cornell University.

Dr. DOUG ANTCZAK (College of Veterinary Medicine, Cornell University): My own experience working on the racetrack 35 years ago was that there were catastrophic breakdowns at that time and that the rate of breakdowns was not that different from what we observe today, but there's very little good data historically on that.

SILBERNER: In fact, there are no national data. Antczak is worried about how horses are being bred and raced today to make their reputation and fortune quickly and at an early age. Breeders are selecting lighter, speedier stallions and mares. Kentucky veterinarian Larry Bramlage has seen that too.

Dr. BRAMLAGE: They have more muscle and less skeleton, which is very economical for the horse to run fast.

SILBERNER: And then there's that legendary drive of the thoroughbred.

Dr. BRAMLAGE: They run so close to the edge of their physiology that unfortunately some of those injuries are fatalities.

SILBERNER: After the breakdown of Eight Belles, a sports columnist in the New York Times referred the horse racing as the new bullfighting. Some animal rights groups are calling for a ban on racing. Industry leaders have taken notice. The rule-making group, the Jockey Club, has a safety committee that's looking into issues such as whether legal steroids are safe, whether track surfaces need to be changed, and they're trying to get a handle on just how many horses break down. And Ed Bowen of the Grayson Foundation says his group is trying to help breeders pick out stallions that have sound, durable foals.

Mr. BOWENS: Our initial thrust was to generate statistics which shed light on what stallions and sire lines produced runners that had a high number of career starts compared to the breed as a whole.

SILBERNER: Bowen admits that breeders aiming for the truly elite runners, the 2500 or so foals born each year that will grow into the very speediest horses, will still breed first for that flat-out speed, that giant stride, that awesomeness that Big Brown has that can take your breath away just watching.

Joanne Silberner, NPR News.

SIEGEL: And you can watch a slideshow of some of the most controversial breakdowns in thoroughbred racing at npr.org.

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