LOUISVILLE, Ky. - A statue of Barbaro in flight outside the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs is a traffic stopper. Yesterday, scores of horse fans paused en route to the betting windows for a look at the bronze memorial where the ashes of the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner are buried underneath.
Since Barbaro won the 132d Derby, horse racing's path has changed. For the general public, the sport's largest news stories have been tragic.
Barbaro fracturing his leg two weeks later at the Preakness, and succumbing to laminitis the next year.
Eight Belles finishing second in last year's Derby, then being euthanized on the track after the filly fractured two legs galloping out after the race.
The National Thoroughbred Racing Association, in charge of marketing the sport, has spent more time lately talking about safety issues than championing top racehorses. Yesterday, an NTRA inspection team visited Delaware Park, part of a new effort to accredit tracks under its Safety and Integrity Alliance program. In the last year, steroids have been banned in most North American racing jurisdictions.
Roy Jackson, co-owner of Barbaro with his wife, Gretchen, applauds all the changes but said the sport needs to go further and faster.
"I think the real problem that has to be dealt with is the drug thing, the medication thing," Jackson, who lives in West Grove, Chester County, said yesterday in a telephone interview. "If they aren't regulated better, the chances of the sport dying are greater."
Jackson, on the board of directors of the Breeders' Cup since last year, said other problems would be easier to diagnose if drug issues are dealt with more seriously, including giving tougher penalties for violators. The sport would have a better read on which track surfaces are endangering horses, Jackson said, if there is a more level playing field with medications.
He noted that drug-testing facilities vary wildly in sophistication, that more money needs to be put in. "Some states are testing urine and not blood," Jackson said.
Larry Jones, who found himself at the center of the safety storm last year after Eight Belles died, said yesterday that "if nothing else, it's brought a lot of awareness. I think everybody in the whole game is trying to do the very best thing possible."
The Delaware Park-based trainer offered some examples: "It seems like I'm not seeing as many scratches in the post parade," he said. "I think trainers are trying to send maybe a little sounder horses" to races.
Jones, who has Friesan Fire, one of the favorites for this year's Derby, also believes tracks are paying more attention to the safety of their surfaces, whether dirt or synthetic. Equipment restrictions and more stringent penalties for misuse of the whip are part of the new landscape.
"Medication was already being looked at, but I think last year hurried things up," Jones said.
Eight Belles didn't use steroids in last year's Derby, as tests later indicated. Jones said he hasn't used steroids on his horses in more than decade. Last year, Rick Dutrow, the trainer of the Derby winner, Big Brown, made news when he said he had administered steroids to Big Brown, which were legal and common at the time.
As part of its safety inspection, the NTRA, a consortium of 55 racetracks, is looking at injury reporting and prevention; creating a safer racing environment; aftercare and transition of retired racehorses; uniform medication, testing and penalties; and safety research.
Earlier this month, Churchill Downs received its NTRA safety accreditation, the first track to be certified, along with Keeneland. At the time, Churchill Downs president Robert Evans said discussions for such a safety alliance had begun before the death of Eight Belles. But he said the death of the filly became the catalyst, that its legacy should be more than having a Derby-day stakes race named after the horse.
"Eight Belles [owner] Rick Porter and trainer Larry Jones were terrific in challenging us to make a difference," Evans said. "They wanted Eight Belles to be a meaningful part of the future, not just something from the past."
"We tried to let ourselves believe that they changed it because [Eight Belles] showed she could compete in the world's greatest race without the help of any this stuff," Jones said of the steroid ban. "If she can compete at that level without it, why should anybody need it?"
But Jones knows that the greater public doesn't pay much attention to the particulars, just that a horse died on the track after the Derby.
And Jackson said the horse players who are paying attention - and are the economic lifeblood of the sport - know it is far from cleaned up. He talked of how he sometimes goes to a Turf Club to watch some horse he owns run, and he overhears the regulars there.
"I'll sit there and listen to some old-timers say, 'I'm not going to bet on this race. There's too many druggie trainers in it,' " Jackson said. "That's not good for racing. It's still simmering below the surface."
Notes. Square Eddie, trained by Doug O'Neill, was withdrawn from Derby consideration yesterday. "We thought he'd come of his work Sunday in good shape," O'Neill said. "But then Monday we felt some heat in his left front shin." . . . Wood Memorial winner I Want Revenge worked four furlongs yesterday in 47.20 seconds.