Horse racing is and always will be a dangerous sport.
Human and equine athletes compete at high speed in crowded fields relying on muscle, bone and split-second judgment to keep them safe.
There are factors that affect that risk, including the integrity of owners, trainers, veterinarians and racing officials.
The challenge horse racing faces is convincing the public that it's doing everything possible to reduce the risk.
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It's a challenge the sport simply has not met.
The only realistic solution is to embrace the efforts of Kentucky Rep. Ed Whitfield and New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall to amend the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978 to prohibit administering performance-enhancing drugs on race days to horses in simulcast races. Hundreds of people in the industry have signed a letter advocating federal oversight.
Performance-enhancing drugs are often used to mask pain so that a sore horse will still run hard. As most human athletes know, pain is a message that, if ignored, can lead to serious injury. In horses, serious injuries are often fatal.
Worse, if a breakdown happens during a race, the horse, rider and the competitors are endangered.
Many countries, including Canada and much of Europe, ban race-day use of performance-enhancing drugs. In the United States, with state-by-state regulation and no industry group with power to enforce standards, there's no such ban. Industry leaders, including many in Kentucky, have adopted model standards for racing safety. But they're voluntary and so not uniformly applied.
As a result, we can only wait for the next report documenting the nastiest sides of racing, the most recent by The New York Times last week. The Times focused on the tragic results of doping in quarter horse racing in New Mexico where casino money has provided lucrative purses.
Noted handicapper and racing columnist Andrew Beyer criticized the Times, saying that quarter horse and Thoroughbred racing are different sports. But, as the Times pointed out in a response, in most states the two are overseen by the same regulatory body.
Regardless, that argument will do nothing to stem racing's decline. If casual fans must pick and choose to find ethical racing many — most — will continue to take their money elsewhere.
As for serious fans, handicappers, they are drawn to the challenge of sifting through reams of facts and figures on past performances to envision how the next race will play out. This all falls apart if a horse runs well because its been given a mega-dose of a painkiller.
Beyer also commented that racing supervision in New Mexico is "notoriously lax." But New Mexico isn't the end of the world. It was only three years ago that Mine that Bird came out of New Mexico to score an upset in the Kentucky Derby, paying $103.50 on a $2 bet.
Some animal rights activists will probably never accept the inherent risk of horse racing as anything other than cruelty. Racing fans will always have a twinge of fear when the gates open but will go on loving the sport.
In between, there are millions of people who might be fans if they could only believe that some authority is watching out for the safety of horse and rider in every race in every state.