BALTIMORE - When the starting gate opens for the 12th race at Pimlico Race Course tomorrow, an industry will hold its breath, praying that the 13 horses running in the 133d Preakness Stakes get past the wire and return to the barn healthy.
Even a victory by heavy favorite Big Brown in the second leg of horse racing's Triple Crown won't grab the same attention from the general public as the well-being of the participants, not after Eight Belles broke down and had to be euthanized immediately after finishing second on May 3 at the Kentucky Derby.
Not with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals planning to protest at Pimlico, and NBC, the network that will show the race, adding a 30-minute prerace roundtable discussion to "examine the tragic death of filly Eight Belles at the Kentucky Derby and the challenges that lie ahead for the horse racing industry."
It was at the Preakness where 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro broke down early in the race and suffered "catastrophic fractures" that ultimately led to his being euthanized eight months later.
Even if most of the issues brought up have little or nothing to do with the exact circumstances surrounding the injuries of Eight Belles or Barbaro, industry leaders realize they can't respond by saying these are accidents that just happen.
"There are things we can do better," Stuart S. Janney III, chairman of the Jockey Club's newly appointed seven-member thoroughbred safety committee, said yesterday.
"Industry credibility is emerging as a concern," wrote Alex Waldrop, president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, in a memo last week to member racetracks.
In that memo, Waldrop wrote, "Many fans, industry participants and media commentators are demanding change. . . . The public doubts our willingness and our ability to honestly wrestle with the issues of track surfaces, medication and breeding practices, just to name a few."
Waldrop went on to write, "Most agree that another equine injury or fatality in a high-visibility race could bring even greater media scrutiny and fan defection like nothing we've experienced before. Consequently, the industry has no alternative but to take action to address these concerns in a comprehensive and credible manner."
Waldrop's memo, which included details of how the NTRA was trying to "manage the message," was posted on a forum on Rockportharbor.com, the Web site maintained by Rick Porter of Wilmington, the owner of Eight Belles. The NTRA has no regulatory power. It is principally charged with marketing the sport and looks at itself as "a convening authority" for the industry on certain matters of widespread interest.
Yesterday, Janney held a media conference call broadly outlining what a committee of industry heavy hitters hopes to accomplish in two scheduled meetings over the next month. Janney said no subjects would be off the table. The committee's charge was to look at breeding practices, medication, track surfaces and the rules of racing.
Janney, the chairman of Bessemer Trust Co., is an influential figure in horse racing. A longtime owner and breeder, he is chairman of the board of Blood-Horse Publications and sits on the boards of the New York Racing Association, the Keeneland Association, and the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association.
Janney acknowledged that the committee would have little in the way of enforcement powers, but said, "We're going to use this committee as a bully pulpit - to be persuasive on certain matters. ... We don't think it's an adequate response to simply point out how we would like to go. I think we are going to have to do a fair amount of work on how we are going to get there."
In his memo, Waldrop concluded by saying, "At this point, we feel the action taken by the industry and the announcement by the Jockey Club may be enough to retain public confidence in the sport. However, should there be another high-profile incident next weekend or at the Belmont - or should the coverage turn negative for any unforeseen reason - we believe the current response to date will not be enough. Stay tuned."
A necropsy report released yesterday concluded that Eight Belles suffered compound fractures of both front legs at the fetlock joints when the filly broke down after finishing second in the Kentucky Derby.
The necropsy, ordered by the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority, found no pre-existing bone abnormalities, said Lafe Nichols, chief state veterinarian. The necropsy also found no disease or condition affecting the cardiovascular and pulmonary systems or other major organs.
The necropsy was performed at the Livestock Disease Diagnostic Center at the University of Kentucky. The results of routine postrace drug testing have not yet been received. That testing is being performed at the authority's official laboratory at Iowa State University.