ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
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.
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TOM HAMMOND: 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: 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.
LARRY BRAMLAGE: Quarter cracks don't tend to do that. Its only concern is its effect on performance.
SILBERNER: Ed Bowen also isn't worried. He's president of a foundation for research on horse health supported by the racing industry.
ED BOWENS: The ability to deal and manage quarter cracks and keep going is not something that is radical or new or anything like that.
SILBERNER: Veterinarian Doug Antczak is with the College of Veterinary Medicine of Cornell University.
DOUG ANTCZAK: 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.
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.
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.
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: 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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