Kentucky Derby

Even small changes a big difference for racing safety

LOUISVILLE — Mike Ziegler wants to make one thing clear: If you're looking for a silver bullet in the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's 48-page application for racetrack accreditation, you're better off spending your time elsewhere.

For all the safety measures racetracks can implement, the sad reality of fatal breakdowns always will be a part of Thoroughbred racing.

Nothing will ever prevent accidents when 1,200-pound animals compete on legs not much bigger than the human wrist, but the industry has taken significant steps in recent months toward enhancing the safety of their environment.

Twelve months ago, the already hot-button issue of racetrack safety was jolted when Kentucky Derby runner-up Eight Belles tragically broke down while galloping out — suffering what is thought to be the first catastrophic injury in the race's history.

The incident spurred a harsh backlash against the filly's connections and the entire sport, but the fallout from her death inspired action from an industry that historically has been slow to change.

In October, the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance was formed, with the goal of establishing national uniform standards for injury reporting, medication, testing and penalties.

This month, Churchill Downs and Keeneland became the first tracks to be accredited by the alliance, with initiatives that include the banning of anabolic steroids, "supertesting" of all winning horses for more than 100 performance-enhancing drugs, and the elimination of front toe grabs longer than two millimeters.

"I think someone made a great analogy that Eight Belles' death was similar to NASCAR in losing Dale Earnhardt Sr.," said Ziegler, executive director of the alliance. "The impetus to change was felt everywhere. It's tragic that that's what really opened everybody's eyes, but I believe people are really grasping onto it.

"Shoe policies have changed, steroids are gone in 99 percent of racing, but I think the biggest change has been the openness to change," he said. "That's something you didn't have very much before. It won't fix everything, but it's been invigorating to see."

Even with such tangible changes as the use of padded starting gates and low-impact riding whips, a typical criticism of the safety measures is that they are just window dressing for racing's problems.

Few argue there is still much ground to cover, but the creation of programs such as the Equine Injury Database System — a means of tracking racing injuries to help identify markers of injury — are cited as examples that the industry is serious about resolving long-standing issues.

"The thing I think people have missed the boat on is if you look where we are today from where we were two years ago, we've moved a great deal," said former trainer Elliott Walden, vice president of WinStar Farm. "Yet I keep reading that we haven't done anything.

"There have been many big changes, I think. Steroids were a hot topic that needed to change, and other race-day medications they've limited to a certain degree. It's unfortunate we focus on the negative, but that's reality."

However, even those who applaud the increased awareness in racetrack safety aren't ready to declare that the sport has done enough.

"I don't think you can make changes of enormous substance (in one year)," said Michael Iavarone, president of IEAH Stables, which owned 2008 Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown. "I think it's a long process and I think it's going to take a lot of time but steps are being made.

"I think racetracks understand the integrity of the game is critical to its fan base and its support. It's got to regulate itself, and if it does, I think racing will be back where it needs to be."

Big Brown himself helped inspire the current swell for change when it was revealed during the Triple Crown last year that he had legally been administered steroids before his Derby triumph.

Whether any of the new safety measures would have prevented the Eight Belles tragedy is debatable.

Just because racing will never fully rid itself of heartbreak doesn't mean its participants believe it shouldn't do everything possible to lessen the blows.

"I think, unfortunately, just like other sports of high speed, there is potential for injury," said Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher. "Certainly we are never going to be completely protected against that, but I think all participants involved have an obligation to try to do the very best we can to minimize it.

"That's all you can hope to do is absolutely minimize it the best you can. You cannot completely prevent it."