Fac­ing ‘ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis’

Anxiety grips horse rac­ing in­dus­try as it pre­pares for the Preakness

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Childs Walker

For all the chaos and dis­cord that erupted in the mo­ments af­ter the Ken­tucky Derby, the manic fin­ish­ing stretch of the race could have pro­duced a far worse result for a trau­ma­tized sport.

What if War of Will had fallen and suf­fered a fa­tal injury when Max­i­mum Se­cu­rity cut in front of him as they turned for home? How would the view­ing pub­lic — al­ready dis­turbed by 23 horse deaths at Santa Anita Park ear­lier in the year — have pro­cessed such a grue­some twist in Amer­ica’s most watched race?

“It would’ve been the big­gest dis­as­ter in horse rac­ing his­tory,” said War of Will’s trainer, Mark Casse.

The colt kept his feet, but the fears raised by his near-calamity spoke to a greater un­ease that has gripped the sport this spring. From the tal­ent-rich barns of Cal­i­for­nia to the neigh­bor­hoods around Pim­lico Race Course, wor­ries have per­co­lated about the fu­ture of thor­ough­bred rac­ing.

The deaths at Santa Anita prompted con­cerns of a ref­er­en­dum to end horse rac­ing in Cal­i­for­nia and in­spired calls for sweep­ing re­form from The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita and both ma­jor tracks in Mary­land — Pim­lico and Lau­rel Park.

Mean­while, the de­bate over Pim­lico’s fu­ture in­ten­si­fied as the is­sue hit the state leg­is­la­ture, with The Stronach Group un­suc­cess­fully seek­ing $120 mil­lion in state funds to ac­cel­er­ate work on a “su­per track” at Lau­rel — while Bal­ti­more of­fi­cials op­posed the leg­is­la­tion, push­ing to keep the Preakness at its his­toric home. Ne­go­ti­a­tions over a po­ten­tial $424 mil­lion

re­de­vel­op­ment of Pim­lico have stalled as the city pur­sues a law­suit to gain con­trol of the track.

Thor­ough­bred rac­ing has en­dured crises, but those who’ve lived through the ups and downs say the sport faces an­other reck­on­ing as it pre­pares for the 144th run­ning of the Preakness on Satur­day.

“We’re in an ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis that no one saw com­ing,” said Alan Fore­man, gen­eral coun­sel for the Mary­land Thor­ough­bred Horse­men’s As­so­ci­a­tion and an in­dus­try in­sider for the past four decades. “If there’s one thing peo­ple can­not tol­er­ate, it’s our equine ath­letes dy­ing on the race­track.”

He said this spring and the spring of 2008, when the filly Eight Belles had to be eu­th­a­nized af­ter fin­ish­ing se­cond in the Ken­tucky Derby, have been the most tu­mul­tuous in his memory. That con­tin­ued Fri­day, when filly Con­grats Gal died in the Miss Preakness Stakes at Pim­lico. The cause has yet to be de­ter­mined.

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas, in town to seek his seventh Preakness win, said the time has never been riper for a na­tional gov­ern­ing body to co­or­di­nate re­sponses to these trou­bles.

“Ev­ery year, we get more of an up­heaval on so many is­sues,” the 83-year-old Lukas said. “Ev­ery track is an is­land and ev­ery­body has their own self­ish agen­das. We need to pull ev­ery­body un­der the same um­brella on medication, stakes qual­ity, rac­ing days.”

In March, con­gress­men from New York and Ken­tucky in­tro­duced the Horse Rac­ing In­tegrity Act to es­tab­lish uni­form drug test­ing stan­dards en­forced by the U.S. Anti-Dop­ing Agency. But that bill has proved di­vi­sive as well, with The Stronach Group and other pow­ers from the in­dus­try sup­port­ing it while Churchill Downs Inc., host of the Ken­tucky Derby, op­poses it.

The cri­sis at Santa Anita lasted from late De­cem­ber to the end of March, with 23 horses suf­fer­ing fa­tal in­juries. The grisly stretch prompted an­i­mal-rights ac­tivists to call for a halt to rac­ing while track op­er­a­tors and in­dus­try lead­ers scram­bled for ex­pla­na­tions.

“It’s been in­cred­i­bly tense for the horse­men in Cal­i­for­nia,” NBC horse rac­ing an­a­lyst Randy Moss said. “There was just a lot of pres­sure on train­ers whow­ere­lit­er­ally see­ing their ca­reers flash be­fore their eyes if Santa Anita had to close per­ma­nently.”

There’s still no defini­tive ex­pla­na­tion for the spate of deaths, though many Santa Anita train­ers have blamed un­usu­ally wet weather com­bined with poor ini­tial man­age­ment of the track sur­face.

The track has now gone six weeks with­out a fatality, but the wider rac­ing in­dus­try is still ex­pe­ri­enc­ing what Moss termed a “wake-up call.”

The Stronach Group closed Santa Anita for three week­ends of rac­ing, but CEO Belinda Stronach went a step fur­ther by an­nounc­ing stricter lim­its on drugs (most no­tably Lasix, the anti-bleeding medication used by train­ers in al­most ev­ery Amer­i­can race) and a ban on whips used by jock­eys.

“We have ar­rived at a wa­ter­shed mo­ment,” Stronach wrote in an open let­ter. “TheStronac­h Group has long been a strong ad­vo­cate for the abol­ish­ment of race-day medication, but we will wait no longer for the in­dus­try to come to­gether as one to in­sti­tute these changes.”

Two weeks be­fore the May 4 Ken­tucky Derby, The Stronach Group joined with a coali­tion of ma­jor track op­er­a­tors to an­nounce im­pend­ing Lasix bans for 2-yearold horses and all horses run­ning in stakes races.

Though the steps drew praise from an­i­mal-rights ac­tivists and some within the in­dus­try (Moss called Stronach’s ac­tions “ap­pro­pri­ately aggressive”), many horse­men re­acted an­grily.

“The pro­posed ban, if im­ple­mented, is an ex­per­i­ment ca­pa­ble of re­sult­ing in ir­repara­ble harm to many of our horses,” the Mary­land Thor­ough­bred Horse­men’s As­so­ci­a­tion and the Mary­land Horse Breed­ers As­so­ci­a­tion said in a joint state­ment. The chair­man of the Mary­land Rac­ing Com­mis­sion, which reg­u­lates the state in­dus­try, has said he doesn’t fore­see the mea­sures be­ing im­ple­mented here.

Fore­man crit­i­cized The Stronach Group’s pro­posed medication bans as a “mis­di­rec­tion” and said they could have the un­in­tended ef­fect of push­ing Mary­land train­ers and owners to neigh­bor­ing states.

Tim Ritvo, The Stronach Group’s chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer for rac­ing, did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment on the re­ac­tion to his com­pany’s medication pro­posal and sev­eral other is­sues.

The anxiety about a break­down in the Derby will be felt again Satur­day at Pim­lico. Preakness day has been marred by deaths be­fore, most re­cently in 2016, when one horse col­lapsed and died af­ter his race and an­other frac­tured her leg and had to be eu­th­a­nized.

“Our job is to do ev­ery­thing we can to minimize the risk,” said Mary­land trainer Mike Trom­betta, who will sad­dle Win Win Win for the Preakness. “We look at the horses daily. We do ev­ery­thing we pos­si­bly can to get everyone home safe. … We’re very wor­ried about this.”

In Bal­ti­more, mean­while, the age-old de­bate over Pim­lico’s fu­ture has in­spired mul­ti­ple lay­ers of con­cern — from horse­men who de­pend on the track for train­ing, to city of­fi­cials who don’t want to lose a sig­na­ture event, to neigh­bor­hood ac­tivists who fear what a va­cant Pim­lico could mean for their day-to-day lives.

“I don’t think it’s anxiety so much as dif­fer­ent peo­ple with dif­fer­ent opin­ions,” said com­mu­nity ac­tivist Tessa Hill-As­ton, who has worked with busi­ness owners in the Park Heights cor­ri­dor. “We do not want that land to be­come va­cant for any amount of time. … It could be­come a desert for bad be­hav­ior.”

Hill-As­ton said she’s hope­ful Pim­lico will be re­de­vel­oped with an eye on ben­e­fit­ing sur­round­ing neigh­bor­hoods. “The sup­port hasn’t been there,” she said.

A Mary­land Sta­dium Au­thor­ity pro­posal for the site, re­leased in De­cem­ber, in­cludes po­ten­tial mixed-use de­vel­op­ments fea­tur­ing a hotel, gro­cery store and se­nior hous­ing.

The Stronach Group has said the Preakness will be run at Pim­lico at least through next year, though the track op­er­a­tor re­cently closed al­most 7,000 seats in the his­toric grand­stand, cit­ing safety con­cerns. State law says the Preakness can be re­lo­cated “only as a result of a dis­as­ter or emergency.”

The prospect of mov­ing the Preakness to Lau­rel in­spires mixed re­ac­tions from the train­ers and owners here to com­pete in the $1.5 mil­lion race. “I’m sym­pa­thetic to the owners, and I’m sym­pa­thetic to the peo­ple who would like the Preakness to stay in their town,” said Trom­betta, who be­gan his train­ing ca­reer at Pim­lico. “But the re­al­ity is that busi­ness model is fail­ing mis­er­ably, and some­body’s got to own that and find a way to fix it.”

JERRY JACKSON/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Preakness en­trant Win Win Win works out on the Pim­lico track at sun­rise Fri­day in prepa­ra­tion for the Preakness Stakes.

ANDY LYONS/GETTY

Coun­try House, rid­den by jockey Flavien Prat, from left; War of Will, rid­den by jockey Tyler Gaf­falione; Max­i­mum Se­cu­rity, rid­den by jockey Luis Saez; and Code of Honor, rid­den by jockey John Ve­lazquez, fight for po­si­tion in the fi­nal turn dur­ing the May 4 Ken­tucky Derby.

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